The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 changed the dynamics of the fight against racial equality in the United Kingdom. The boycott was the first black-led campaign against racial discrimination in the UK.
In the late 1960s, racial discrimination was recognized in Britain’s laws. But, there was a paradigm shift in this national stance after the Second World War, according to Bristol Museums. The UK witnessed a growing demand by its African-American population for equal rights and issues of social injustice to be addressed.
It was during this period that Britain was encountering a shortage in labor and made a clarion call on its Caribbean colonies particularly Jamaica and Barbados to step in to fill the vacuum. The mass exodus of immigrants in the 1950s was what resulted in mounting dissent from white British leading to the Nottingham and Notting Hill race riots of 1958.
This brought about the passage of the Immigration Act of 1962 to control the influx of immigrants into the UK. In Bristol, for example, there were about 1,000 African-Caribbean migrants in the 1950s, and this number shot up to 3,000 in 1962. The immigrants were bedeviled with the challenges of finding accommodation and high-paying jobs and confronted with racial hatred.
The immigrant population was centered in the inner city area of St Pauls despite the settlement being ravaged by the war. Still, the African-Caribbean people were accused of being responsible for the deterioration of the place. Ordinarily, it was predominantly a white settlement, but, it was many a time described as a black area because of the presence of people of African descent.
One sector that was experiencing racial segregation was the Bristol Joint Services, which was jointly run by the Corporation of Bristol and the Bristol Omnibus Company. Though it had private ownership, workers of Bristol Omnibus Company subscribed to the Transport and General Workers Union.
In 1955, the local union passed a resolution that barred people of African descent from working as bus conductors and drivers. Despite this being illegal, the management of the company tagged along with the directive, with the national union subtly endorsing it. The action was criticized by the media in 1961 with the Bristol Evening Post leading the charge but the company manager, Ian Patey, justified the decision.
Some of the workers formed an advocacy group known as the West Indian Development Council which partnered with Paul Stephenson. Stephenson at the time was Bristol’s first Black youth officer. He was born to a West African father and an English mother in Essex. He was well-educated, articulate and known for his prowess in organization.
He brought the Omnibus Company’s racist policy to the limelight. What he did was to get a qualified young man by the name Guy Bailey to apply for a vacancy as a bus conductor in the company. He was denied an opportunity before the interview panel because they found out he was a Black Jamaican. After that, Stephenson implored the West Indian Development Council to call for a boycott of Bristol’s buses in April 1963.
Soon the campaign garnered support, with some students from the University of Bristol organizing a protest in the city center to back the boycott. The media was inundated with letters both for and against the racist policy of the company.
Stephenson faced stiff opposition from the public and Christendom, with the Bishop of Bristol lashing out at him for adopting a militant stance in airing their grievances. The boycott soon caught national and international attention. Local Labour politician Tony Benn, Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and celebrated West Indian cricketer Sir Learie Constantine added their voices to the boycott.
The Bristol Omnibus Company had no other option than to outlaw its racist policy in August 1963. The company employed Sikh graduate Raghbir Singh as Bristol’s first bus conductor of color a month after it abolished its color bar policy.
There are many who believe the success of the boycott led to the eventual passage of the UK Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968.