The History of Civil Rights and the Fight for Racial Equality in the UK

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I was born and raised in the Republic of Ireland, and the only Black History Month I knew of for a long time was Black History Month in the United States. I was completely unaware that just across the pond, the United Kingdom celebrated their own Black History Month, in a completely different month to the US.

Black History Month in the US is celebrated in February because it falls on the birthdays of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and the so-called Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln has historically been seen as embodying the most important American ideals, a self-made man, a hero and the liberator of slaves. However, Lincoln was actually anti-slavery, not an abolitionist like Douglass. Anti-slavery advocates did not view black people as equals, and a majority of them argued for gradual emancipation. Abolitionists, on the other hand, were fighting for the immediate emancipation of slaves and the ending of racial segregation and discrimination. Lincoln was a racist who actually defended and tried to protect slavery, many times, and that’s how we should remember him… but I digress.

Black History Month in the United Kingdom is celebrated in October for two reasons. Firstly, African chiefs and leaders traditionally gathered in October to discuss their differences, so the founder of Black History Month in the UK, Akyaaba Addai Sebo, picked this month to reconnect with our African roots. Secondly, October is seen as the start of the new academic year, so October was decided upon to give black students a sense of pride and identity. 

Akyaaba Addai Sebo was a Ghanaian born officer on the Greater London Council. He founded Black History Month in the UK in 1987, after visiting America in the 1970s. In actuality, it was only in 1969 that Black History Month was born in the US. Before then, it was only Negro History Week that was celebrated, which was founded by Carter G. Woodson in February 1926. People started recognising in the 60s, against the backdrop of the Black Panthers, various black power movements and the civil rights movement, that a week just wasn’t long enough, and to be honest, neither is a month.

Black History Month in the UK and Britain’s black power movements were inspired by what was happening in the US. There were black power movements in the UK that people know very little about, such as The British Black Panther. The BBP was a secretive movement, but they had a significant impact on race relations and legislation in this country. Their hidden legacy is in all the proposed laws about deportation being quashed, ensuring that the government properly educated black children. Neil Kenlock, a BBP member, stated in an interview with VICE that “There were a lot of successes, but they weren’t really attributed to the Black Panthers, even though they were the work of the Panthers. It’s a hidden story.”

There is so much we don’t know about Black history, and it’s not something that can be squeezed into a month. It’s something that should be embedded into our mainstream educational system. As the late and great Toni Morrison said: ‘Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.’ Black history in the UK is taught through such a white-centric lens. Rather than teaching it with the same respect as the World Wars, it is merely used to teach non- black students “tolerance” – a word we should reexamine – during Black History Month.

Along with this narrative, Black History Month is also framed as highlighting the achievements and contributions of black people to the cultural, political, social and economic developments of the UK. However, it’s important to note that Black Britons are more than their contributions to the UK, just as Black Americans are more than their contributions to the US, and so on and so forth.

We need to make a conscious effort to stop limiting the educational practices and historical ideologies of black history, this Black History Month and beyond. It’s important to reexamine where the country has gone wrong but remember that black history is more than slavery and much more than what we’ve done for our colonisers.

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