The Untold Story Of The Women Who Led Britain’s Black Panther Movement

Photo by Neil Kenlock.
The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were not the first time British people have taken to the streets to protest for their civil rights. If you don’t know this, it’s because Black British history is not properly taught in our schools. 
The British Black Panther movement was founded in London in 1968. During that year of global political turmoil, Black activists were increasingly vocal in their demands that Britain acknowledge that Black Power was an international phenomenon and that racism in the UK was endemic. Inspired ideologically and aesthetically by the original Black Panthers from California but attuned to their own communities’ postcolonial contexts, the British Black Panthers campaigned against racial discrimination.
Like many protest movements of the time, the image of the British Black Panthers is very fraternal but in reality there were many Black women involved in the organising efforts. Their stories just aren’t as well documented. As Dr Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University’s School of Social Sciences, has stated: "Black women [...] weren’t just part of the history of the Black Power movement, they led it in Britain." But just as the history of Britain’s Black Power movement in general does not sit in our collective cultural memory, the role women played in political organising against racial injustice still does not receive the acknowledgement it deserves.
Altheia Jones-LeCointe, who led the British Black Panther movement when Nigerian poet and founding member Obi Egbuna was jailed, is one of the movement’s most important figures. She was born in Trinidad and travelled to the UK in 1965 to study for a biochemistry PhD at UCL. She got involved in community organising as a student and it was while participating in a sit-in at ULU (University of London Union) to protest lodging discrimination that she first encountered the British Black Panthers, who had attended in solidarity. As a Panther, Altheia spoke at schools, her powerful speeches on activism and anti-colonialism inspiring a young Linton Kwesi Johnson (the British-Jamaican poet and activist), who heard her speak at his sixth form, to join the Black Panther Youth League.

Black women [...] weren't just part of the history of the Black Power movement, they led it in Britain.

Dr Kehinde Andrews
In 1970, Altheia organised a demonstration protesting the police harassment of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill. After violence erupted at the over-policed event, she and eight others including fellow Panthers Darcus Howe and Barbara Beese were arrested. They, along with others arrested, would become known as the Mangrove Nine, charged with conspiracy to incite a riot. In the high-profile trial, Altheia defended herself and not only would the Mangrove Nine be acquitted but for the first time a judge would acknowledge "racial hatred inside the Metropolitan Police".
As the leader of the Panthers, Altheia also worked hard to make sure women’s voices were heard within the organisation. Speaking in 2014 to the Organised Youth project (a team of young filmmakers and photographers who set about collecting the British Black Panther movement’s oral history), she discussed the early challenges surrounding gender, in particular that there were ideas about "what sisters could do and what brothers could do". Some of the organisation’s women "began to feel they wanted to have a Black women’s movement".
When the Panthers dissolved in 1973, several female members would go on to found different Black women’s groups. Olive Morris was one such woman. She moved to London from Jamaica as a child in 1961 and was involved in activism as a teenager. She was spurred into action at just 17 years old when she was the victim of police brutality while trying to intervene in the harassment of a Nigerian diplomat. Like Kwesi-Johnson, Morris first joined the Panthers' youth branch and very quickly became a well-known name in community organising. In 1972, she started a squatters' movement on Railton Road in Brixton to call attention to the number of properties which sat vacant while thousands of people were homeless.
Olive’s legacy of activism stretches far beyond her involvement with the Panthers, however. After the group’s dissolution, she cofounded the Brixton Black Women’s Group with fellow former Panthers Liz Obi – who squatted with Morris – and Beverley Bryan who, encouraged by Morris, had joined the Panthers as a teacher in Brixton.
Fuelled by her own early experiences of prejudice and her reading of James Baldwin and Malcolm X, Beverley joined the Brixton chapter to use teaching as activism. Today, reflecting on her experiences, the renewed focus on Black civil rights in Britain and what we can learn from the legacy of the British Black Panthers and the Brixton Black Women’s Group, she speaks to me from Jamaica, where she is currently. 
"What I felt I could do," Beverley tells Refinery29, "was get other young people involved and active and especially develop the Saturday school which I saw as something that would help the children to really develop a sense of self."
As members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, Olive Morris, Liz Obi and Beverley Bryan advocated for Black women and gave them guidance on welfare concerns such as housing, education and health. The group also teamed up with the Mary Seacole Craft Group to open the first Black Women’s Centre in Stockwell.
At the time, this was crucial. It still is today. They created safe spaces for Black women where they could speak to and get advice from women who looked like them, who understood them intuitively without them having to explain themselves. 

We started a women's group but when we were talking about the behaviour of men in the movement, then we were 'bourgeois feminists' […] We would never want to be seen as part of the white bourgeois feminists, so I think that was also a way of constraining how vocal we were about the way our men behaved.

Beverley Bryan
In 1978, Olive would also start the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) with fellow Brixton Black Women’s Group member Gail Lewis, and activist and historian Stella Dadzie. The group was originally called the Organisation of Women of Africa and African Descent but was changed to reflect the commonalities in struggle between Black and Asian women. "Our contribution [as Black and Asian women] included a focus on triple oppression – i.e. joining the dots between different oppressions we faced, highlighting how they were interconnected (now referred to as intersectionality)," Stella tells Refinery29, reflecting on the need to keep thinking big, to open up conversations and to bring people together as we move forward.
The group also functioned as a national network for disparate women’s groups to connect with one another as they campaigned against discriminatory practices like the infamous sus laws, a precursor to stop and search which also disproportionately targeted Black people. They also staged a sit-in at Heathrow Airport to protest the so-called "virginity tests" whereby many South Asian women were subjected to vaginal examinations to supposedly determine their marital status and hence their visa requirements. As a network, OWAAD was one of the biggest forces in mobilising Black and Asian women politically. Women who attended their conferences went back to their own communities around the country and set up local Black women’s groups.
These groups would face accusations from fellow activists of being divisive and "splitting the movement", as Beverley, Stella and Dr Suzanne Scafe (also a former member of OWAAD and the Brixton Black Women’s Group) discuss in The Heart of the Race, their book about Black women’s experiences in the UK. 
It wasn’t easy. "Inevitably there were some who felt threatened by the idea of Black women organising separately," says Stella. "And the truly ignorant dismissed us as a 'bunch of lesbians'."
"It was the '70s," says Beverley, referring to gender politics faced by this group of women as they operated inside the majority male-led groups. "There would have been a certain amount of sexual politics without the understandings that we have now […] We did start to question that, that there were things that we wanted to talk about; we did need a space. We started a women’s group but when we were talking about the behaviour of men in the movement, then we were 'bourgeois feminists' […] We would never want to be seen as part of the white bourgeois feminists, so I think that was also a way of constraining how vocal we were about the way our men behaved."
Their struggles were fruitful, though. The proliferation of the groups headed up by these women spoke to the activists’ determination that race and gender be discussed at the same time. "We had a healthy scepticism about the men who saw themselves as self-appointed spokesmen or who assumed women were only there to support their political trajectory," says Stella.
The hard work of activists like Olive Morris, who died from cancer in 1979 aged just 27, Liz Obi, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Beverley Bryan and Leila Hassan Howe outlasted their involvement in the Panthers but there has been a reticence in mainstream culture to acknowledge that work, especially in comparison to the recognition other civil rights movements receive. It’s time to change that. 
Dr Hannah Elias, lecturer in Black British History at Goldsmiths, tells Refinery29: "The history of Black Power movements in the UK has largely been silenced from history school curricula and public memory. American civil rights history is taught with greater frequency in English schools and often through a particularly masculine lens – one that focuses on the achievements of male leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, while obscuring the essential role of women in building global Black liberation movements."
But the rise of the Black Lives Matter protest movement in the US and its counterparts in the UK has brought the historic fights for racial justice in this country back into the mainstream. In particular, the fact that Black Lives Matter was also founded by three women – Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi – has forced us to consider how the more familiar faces of political protest have often been male.
Popular culture has been making recent efforts to uncover Black British history. "It has begun to be addressed in a growing number of TV programmes," reflects Stella. "But there is a way to go, particularly in highlighting the roles women have played."
Back in 2017, for example, John Ridley’s Sky Atlantic miniseries Guerrilla starring Idris Elba and Babou Ceesay was promoted as the story of the Black British fight against racial injustice in the 1970s. But the drama drew criticism for sidelining the contribution of significant Black women, casting the Indian-American actor Freida Pinto as the female lead. This is not to say that South Asian women were not involved in the British Black Panther movement. They most certainly were and the idea of Afro-Asian unity and political Blackness (a now-controversial practice which defined all non-white peoples as Black) informed the work of the BPM and later groups.

The history of Black Power movements in the UK has largely been silenced from school curricula and public memory. American civil rights history is taught with greater frequency in English schools and often through a particularly masculine lens – one that focuses on the achievements of male leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, while obscuring the essential role of women in building global Black liberation movements.

Dr Hannah Elias
However, it seemed like a major omission not to have characters that referred more explicitly to women like Altheia Jones-LeCointe. Steve McQueen’s forthcoming miniseries Small Axe will feature the story of the Mangrove Nine, with British-Guyanese actor Letitia Wright playing Altheia. We’ll have to wait until September to see with what prominence Wright as Jones-LeCointe features in the show.
Photo Courtesy of BBC
The New York Times paid tribute to Olive Morris in 2019 as part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about significant people whose deaths initially went unreported by the paper. On 26th June this year, on what would have been Morris’ 68th birthday, Google paid tribute with a doodle depicting a mural of Morris on the side of 121 Railton Road, the house at the centre of her squatters' movement.
These cultural acknowledgements sit alongside the work done by archivists and bloggers but also, significantly, by the activists themselves. In honour of Morris, Liz Obi founded the Remember Olive Collective which looks after the Olive Morris collection at the Lambeth archives and plans for a memorial award for young activists to be created in Morris’ name. Beverley Bryan, Suzanne Scafe and Stella Dadzie decided as early as 1985 not to wait for the stories of the contributions of Black women in the UK to be told.
"I have always argued that if we don’t tell our history, others will do it for us," concludes Stella as we finish our chat, "hence The Heart of the Race (which was republished in 2018 as a feminist classic) and my forthcoming book, A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance."
"There were about 100 women who contributed [to the book], that’s the voices of a lot of different women," adds Beverley, speaking of what might be the key to preserving these stories. "What happens now is that there is not a lot of variety in the voices. The history is not about the one or two individuals that are held up but all those people, often faceless and voiceless, that you don’t hear about. We need to have some of their stories recorded."
The influence of Britain’s Black Power movement and the groups that emerged from it on the way racism was discussed in a country which often attempts to deny its existence was remarkable. The women mentioned here played a significant part and this article is not the first to highlight them in recent years. It should continue. These movements should receive repeated acknowledgement in mainstream culture and media until the histories are as familiar to us as those of America’s civil rights movement which, after all, was happening at the same time.
As suggested above, the school curriculum might be a good place to start. "Black women in Britain have played a critical role in organising and leading anti-racist, Black Power and anti-colonial movements, and continue to do so," says Hannah Elias. "These stories need to be shared and preserved and made central to the teaching of the struggle for race equality in Britain in our schools."
Beverley also suggests an interesting alternative as we finish our conversation: "I don’t think we should rely on the state so much to tell our story and do the work for us. We need to be more self-sufficient, self-reliant, especially when it comes to such precious cargo: our stories, our struggles, our experiences. We need to find the resources to tell them ourselves and support the people who are trying to do that. Support the archives, support the Black publishers that are trying to do that work."
Check out what to do, watch and see this Black History Month here.

More from Politics

R29 Original Series