This article is a contribution from our recent collaboration with pupils at Cedar Mount Academy. 

Who was Len Johnson?

Len Johnson was a black British boxer and communist who competed from 1920 to 1933. He was born in Clayton, Manchester in October 1902. His father was from Sierra Leone, while his mother was born in Manchester. His ideas against racism caused him to take a public stand against discrimination & bigotry.

In 1953, he and his friends went inside The Old Abbey Taphouse for some drinks but were refused by the employees simply because of the colour of their skin, as at this time there was a policy in place called the ‘colour bar’ (which was introduced in the pub on 1 October 1953). The ‘colour bar’ was a discriminatory practice enacted by landlords, employers and institutions which disallowed black people from taking up employment, finding affordable houses and entering public places, such as The Old Abbey Taphouse. The police were called to the pub and they were thrown out. This was a common occurrence in post-war Britain and was not unusual to see. What was unusual was Johnson’s response.

What did he decide to do?

This inspired him to launch a campaign and enlisted the help of the then Lord Mayor of Manchester. Over the next three days more than two hundred people, black and white, gathered to take part in a protest fighting against the ‘colour bar.’ Four nights later, the ‘colour bar’ was revoked and Len Johnson was invited back to the pub for a drink with the licensee. 

Unfortunately, he died on the 28th of September 1974 in Oldham General Hospital, and that’s when he finally started to get recognised and acknowledged for his brave and inspiring work.

How is Len Johnson still being remembered today?

The memory of Len Johnson and his work was kept alive by many individuals the years following his death. One boxer in Manchester (Frank) adopted the last name Johnson in honour of his heroic attributes. At a library in Salford, Len Johnson’s collection was preserved, including a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings which documented his boxing life. 

Michael Herbert and Rob Howards both wrote books on Len Johnson, but unfortunately they are both out of print. Despite the fact that they are both out of print, they both highlight Johnson’s boxing career and his anti-discrimination work. Johnson has also inspired theatre: in 1997 a musical based on Johnson’s life was performed by young people from Rochdale schools and in 2014 another play on Johnson was featured at the Manchester festival. 

Len Johnson’s name was known in Manchester and across the country and inspired many other people to fight against the ‘colour bar’. Commemoration ideas include an annual ‘Drink to Len’ at The Old Abbey Taphouse which fortunately re-opened in October 2016.

In conclusion, I think Len Johnson and his activism should be taught in all schools in Manchester and all over the country to inspire young people to stand up against things they feel are not right, and remind us that we don’t have to accept the systems that have been placed in society. Learning about Len Johnson keeps him and his story ongoing for many years moving forward.