This article will feature in Issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

On hearing the phrase ‘bus boycott’, for most people, a certain plethora of images would spring to mind. The determined Rosa Parks sitting next to a white passenger on the bus, white policemen conducting her subsequent arrest, Martin Luther King in his prime protesting on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama. All images which constitute the most significant, and successful example of resistance to oppression in modern Western history.

Replace those names and faces with the likes of Paul Stephenson, Guy Bailey and Roy Hackett. It’s probable that the average person has never heard of these people; nor could they put a name to a face. And this is exactly the problem – The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 has slipped out of mainstream modern history. It may be omnipresent in the minds of those who witnessed it upfront in Bristol, but is mostly absent from the minds of young historians and from school curriculums today, despite its position as one of the most symbolic moments in Black British history. This article aims to educate and shine a light upon the momentous event that is the Bristol Bus Boycott, and trace its origins to understand it further.

Bristol’s African Caribbean community has grown and flourished since the Windrush generation came to settle in big British cities during the late 1940s. The year before the boycott, there were around 3,000 African Caribbeans living in the poorer city centre areas of St Paul’s and Easton. Yet, the first wave of immigrants did not receive the warm welcome they deserved, and were continually mistreated for years afterwards. Overt and covert racism, the bitterness of the Teddy Boys and ‘colour bars’, were what greeted Bristol’s Windrush generation and their descendants, and this enduring oppression over the decade arguably culminated in the organised protest that was the bus boycott.

The bus organisation in question was the popular, nationalised ‘Bristol Omnibus Company’. The Evening Post had exposed their racist policies in 1961, causing outrage throughout Bristol. It was revealed that the company was adhering to a 1955 resolution, passed by the Bristol branch of the ‘Transport and General Workers Union’. This stated that ‘coloured’ people were banned from working as bus conductors and drivers, on the grounds that Black labour and the mixing of the races would limit productivity. The response was almost immediate. Having formed the ‘West Indian Development Council’ a few years before, activist Roy Hackett worked with youth officer Paul Stephenson to test the waters of the resolution, putting forward one of his pupils, 18 year-old Guy Bailey, for an interview at the bus company. Bailey turned up to the interview and was immediately rejected on the grounds of his race, and the saddest fact of all was that it was perfectly within the manager’s legal rights to do so. This was the definitive catalyst that pushed Stephenson, Hackett and now Bailey into resisting their oppression, and into initiating a defining development in British race relations too.

The boycott of the buses commenced from April 1963, and the African Caribbean community were joined by university students and other activists in city protests as well. It lasted for four months until the Bristol Omnibus Company conceded to mounting pressures from both the community and the press. The events gained national and even international attention. Tony Benn, the Labour MP for Bristol South East, helped to organise the boycott by committing to staying “off the buses, even if I have to find a bike”. His party leader, and the soon-to-be Prime Minister Harold Wilson, echoed Benn’s support, wishing the Bristolians “every success”. The ‘colour ban’ was eventually lifted on August 28, the very same day that Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech in the United States. Perhaps this is what makes the boycott most symbolic, and what is most regrettable about its erasure from mainstream history.  The connection between Washington, and the West Country is wholeheartedly emblematic of the progress that was made for civil rights, across the globe. 

The successes that stemmed from the dispute did not put an end to racial tensions and inequalities in Bristol, nor elsewhere. Systemic, institutionalised racism still prevails globally today. But the legacy and impact of the Bristol Bus Boycott did lead to legislative developments; historians have concluded that the subsequent Race Relations Act of 1965, passed by new Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, was undoubtedly influenced by the events of 1963. Discrimination on the grounds of race, and other factors, had been officially outlawed, and the likes of the ‘coloured ban’ that preceded the boycott had been declared illegal. It was a parliamentary win for Paul Stephenson, Roy Hackett and others – and yet they understood that there was still work to be done.

Perhaps the events and protests in Bristol over the summer of 2020 can serve as an echo of the 1960s, in Britain and abroad. It goes to show that resistance to oppression, whether that be in the form of boycotting or statue-toppling, can be successful, but also that the battle against racism will always persist. There is still work to be done in Britain, and one of the first tasks, which has hopefully been tackled here, is to trace, historicise, and most of all remember, the iconic Bristol Bus Boycott.

By Emily Hunt

Photograph: Historic England