This article will feature in Issue 37: Oppression and Resistance
Olive Elaine Morris (b.1953) was a grass-roots and radical Black feminist, likely known for her constant resistance to racism, sexism, and class oppression. Olive campaigned against racism, and in support of both women’s rights, international rights, and squatters’ rights. It is clear that she sought to unpick the interconnected systems which upheld the discriminatory structures in social, political, and economic arenas.
Morris was also well known as a community activist, an avid traveller, an internationalist and perhaps most interestingly, a ‘challenger’. Given that she spent the majority of her life resisting racial, gender, and social inequalities, it comes as no surprise that her friends often referred to her as ‘Tallawah’ – the Jamacian Patois word which refers to someone small but feisty.
Born in St. Catherine, Jamaica, Morris migrated to England in 1961 to live in London with her parents – who had come to Britain as part of the Windrush generation – and three siblings. Upon leaving secondary school, Olive was not awarded with any qualifications; Instead, she attended college during the evenings to obtain her O and A levels. By 1968, she was a core member of the ‘UK Black Panthers Youth Collective’, an organisation dedicated to the study of Black history, politics, and culture. The UK Black Panthers were inspired by, but not affiliated with, the American Black Panther Party, who understandably did not represent the Black British experience. In 1969, aged 17, she was subject to a case of police brutality for intervening in what she believed to be an unjust police altercation.
From 1975-1978, Morris studied a degree in Economics and Social Sciences at the University of Manchester, and it was during this time that she travelled worldwide, campaigning alongside the ‘National Coordinating Committee of Overseas Student’ for the abolition of overseas student fees. She also visited China as part of a trip with the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU), who are still up and running today. Upon her return, Olive wrote about the impact of classism and gender on working in China, describing the anti-imperialist struggles of Chinese women in an article entitled ‘A Sister’s Visit to China’, which was published in Speak Out! The Brixton Black Women’s Group newsletter.
Whilst in Manchester, Olive was active in Manchester’s Moss Side area, but she also kept close ties with the two groups she had set up in Brixton, the Black Women’s Group and the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD).
She was a strong believer in education for all, and campaigned for a better quality of education for Black children. Morris also supported Black parents in Moss Side to establish a much-needed supplementary school. Morris was a key member of the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group and the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative. The Co-operative sought to address employment inequality in Manchester and in 1980 was renamed by Morris’ associate Kath Locke, the Abasindi Co-operative. Today, the Kath Locke Community Centre continues to offer primary care and community services to the people in South Manchester.
When Morris passed in 1979 she was 27 years old. Shared memories of Morris in the Speak Out! newsletter describe her as ‘a very strong and fearless Black sister’ as well as someone who ‘could not sit on the fence or shout empty slogans at injustices’. They illustrate her as a selfless sister, evident in her ‘total dedication to the struggles for liberation, democracy and socialism of all oppressed and exploited people throughout the world.’ Morris was a staunch believer in housing as a human right and ‘squatting as politics’ and in the same year as her passing, a photo of Morris scaling a building during an attempted eviction of a squat featured on the 1979 cover of Squatters’ Handbook. In 2015 Morris was voted by the public to become the face of the Brixton Pound (B£), a local currency to support business and trade in South London.
Manchester boasts the largest student population in Europe. This includes those Manchester born and bred, those travelling from right across the UK and international students who join us from abroad. In the three years that Morris resided in Manchester, she left a legacy that has benefitted so many of us today. She demonstrated the powerful impact of engaging in local politics and the power of this to link communities across locations. For someone whose heart belonged to Brixton, Morris left a mark upon the world, and her legacy exemplifies that political power is transient. So, it is perhaps really important for students feeling daunted at university by the prospects of new spaces, places, and faces to remember that we may feel likkle, but we tallawah.
By Parise Carmichael-Murphy
Image © Neil Kenlock 1973, National Portrait Gallery London