He was an unsung hero in many homes in the UK. Despite having been recognized by Queen Elizabeth II for his unflinching activism, Roy Hackett’s towering achievements were not as publicized as Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks.
Born and raised in Trench Town, Jamaica, he was a bookkeeper until 1952 when he decided to relocate to England. He was part of the immigrants who honored the call to come and reconstruct England after it was ravaged by World War II. His decision to move to England at the age of 24 was to also look for greener pastures. He lived in London and Wolverhampton for some time before moving to Bristol. He experienced the worst form of racism at Bristol. He spent his first night in the open because no landlord will rent his room to him.
The only place of abode he later got was with his cousin, Irving Williams, who shared his place with three others. It was during a conversation with Black activist Owen Henry that he resolved there was the need to take concrete steps to end the racism against the Black community with regard to employment and housing. He came together with some friends to organize their own civil rights campaign in 1963 following the Montgomery bus boycott in the U.S.
His first evangelism against racism was when he met a Black man who was weeping because a bus company won’t employ him due to the color of his skin. Enraged by the man’s story, Hackett is reported to have stormed the offices of the company (the Bristol Omnibus Co.) and told the management that if the Black man can’t be taught how to drive, the buses would not be allowed to be operational.
Hackett then led a four-month protest that transformed Britain’s stance on race relations. The long-standing unofficial racism in Britain was reformed in law and practice following the Black boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Co. Prior to the boycott, it was acceptable for a landlord to turn away a Black man seeking to rent his property. For bus companies, the argument was that the Black staff will dissuade white passengers from patronizing their services.
Even before Hackett initiated a movement to continue the protest, many cities in England had begun pulling down “no Blacks” signs and recruiting non-white bus and train drivers as well as station staff. Bristol was however adamant about this wind of change that was blowing across England.
Hackett is said to have played an instrumental role in convincing Harold Wilson’s Labor government to pass the first anti-racist law in Britain. This was made possible through the groundswell support for the boycott even from the local MP Tony Benn and from Wilson, who was then leader of the opposition. It was through this advocacy that made Raghbir Singh Bristol’s first non-white bus conductor.
Hackett was born on September 19, 1928. He died on August 3, 2022. He was survived by three children. “He could have been Britain’s Martin Luther King if he had the same PR,” Kehinde Andrews, a Black studies professor at Birmingham City University, said in an interview with Metro newspaper. Andrews added that Hackett “was the one that could galvanize the community, working at a grass-roots level.”