Celebrating the women of the British Black Panther Movement | Natalie Joseph

As Black History Month draws to a close in the UK,  I want to take time to remember, commemorate and bring attention to some of the many women who played a key role within the UK British Black Panther Party.

The Black Panther movement came together as black people wanted to speak out and challenge that box that society had placed them. People from African, Caribbean and Britain teamed up to define and challenge the constraints that were forced on them.

When I think of the British Black Panthers movement, all too often the narrative is centred on the contribution of the male members. Time and again women get overlooked, even though they were significant  and played important roles in the organisation.

Without dimming the light on the impact of the male members and their achievements.I want to highlight some key female members of the movement. Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Neil Kenlock, Danny Decosta and Abdul aka Mac, three core members of the British Black Panthers, who were all keen to remind me of the importance of fighting  for your rights against all adversity.

With all the information gained made it challenging for me to summarize all the insights because there was so much to learn. According to Danny Decosta, the role that women played in the movement was never seen as inferior to role that men played.

It is evident that female members such as Altheia Jones- Lecointe, Barbara Beese, Beverly Bryan and Olive Morris were most prominent. The female members involvement in the movement was always equal to the men, however, Altheia Jones-Lecointe and Olive Morris were more vocal, hence had the status and recognition that they deserved.

According to my findings the core female members were acknowledged for having a better education, and stood in a superior position to understand and communicate the struggle. They could articulate the Panthers’ messages to the wider public through their articles in the black press and at demonstrations.

Altheia Jones-Lecointe was a Trinidad and Tobago native, who was largely considered the leader of the Black British Panthers in the early 1970s. She was not just the leader of the women’s section, but the leader of its 3000-odd members. Altheia was considered as the number one driving force, with a vision, drive and ambition that was self-propelled to enforce change.

Altheia was also one of the Mangrove Nine, whose arrests and subsequent acquittal achieved the first judicial acknowledgement in the UK that there was “evidence of racial hatred” in the Metropolitan police. The nine’s extraordinary legal success is largely credited to both her and Darcus Howe’s decision to defend themselves in the trial and dismiss 63 jurors who they deemed unfit to bring about a fair trial.

Altheia became involved in the British Black Panther movement when she was a student at University College. She joined the socialist society at university when she faced adversity while trying to access student housing and was involved in a ‘sit in’ because of a lack of lodging for its black students and minority groups of the community.She joined the movement after the British Black Panthers supported the demonstration. Altheia felt that British Black Panther movement ended because younger members  became successful and involved in other groups, so they no longer felt they needed a group to represent them. I feel that’s where the challenge is today.

Barbara Beese is a British activist, writer, and former member of the British Black Panthers. She came to public attention in 1970 as one of the Mangrove Nine, who on 9 August that year marched to Notting Hill police station, London, to protest against police raids of the Mangrove restaurant.

Violent clashes between the police and the Black Panther marchers led to charges and an important trial that is said to have “changed racial justice in the UK forever”. Beese was one of those arrested and charged on a number of accounts. She was found not guilty on all charges. Barbara contributed to the journal Race Today on a number of topics, including education.

Olive Morris was a Jamaican-born activist who was the founding member of one of the most important black feminist organisations of the 1970s, Organisation of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD). She joined the Black Panthers Youth branch as a teen and went on to fight racism and police brutality in Brixton for almost a decade.
Olive established the Brixton Black Women’s Group, a collective of radical feminist black women who took action on issues which specifically affected black women, such as immigration and family planning and founded the Brixton Black Women’s Centre in Stockwell Green.

Prominent in the black squatting movement, Olive was responsible for securing some of the most crucial spaces for the black power movement including, the offices of the journal Race Today and of the Brixton Black Women’s Group. The Olive Morris House, a building owned by Lambeth Council,was constructed in 1986 a few years after her untimely death.

Activist and author, Beverly Bryan was active in the Black British Panthers from around 1970. Alongside Olive Morris and Liz Obi, Beverley helped set up the Black Women’s Group as they took on education, police brutality and housing together.
Beverley co-authored The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, published by feminist publishing house Virago. The book documented the history of black British feminism in the 1970s and went on to win the Martin Luther King Award in 1986. She later moved back to Jamaica where she became a Professor at the University of the West Indies.

Leila Howe, born Hassan, edited the journal Race Today from 1986, having been a core member of staff since its inception, Leila became involved in the Black Panther movement in the late 1960s, co-running the Race Today offices that Olive Morris had secured where they would run Basement Sessions, discussing art, culture and politics, much of which would later feature in the magazine.

In the words or Altheia Jones Lecointe, “It’s important black people be organised, to get together and continue to recognise ourselves as an integral group, and to state what our issues are both individually and as a group. The more we deny its importance, the less important we will be as individuals and as a group”.

All of these women are worth remembering for their contribution to bettering the black British experience and facilitating better lives for generations to come. These women have been forgotten or unacknowledged and it’s up to us to share their stories. We must we continue to say their names, engage with the work and above all else, write ourselves into history too.

This list is by no mean exhaustive of course, and honourable mentions should go to Linda Hodge, Barbara McIntosh, Gail Lewis, Stella Dadzie, Hazel Carby, Jessica Huntley, Claudia Jones, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Amy Jaques Garvey, Una Marson, Adelaide Casely-Hayford and countless other black women who have helped shape the Britain that we live in and constructed the boots that we attempt to fill today.

Visit The Black Cultural Archive in Brixton, South London to find out more about the women of the movement.

 

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