Bristol bus boycott

Bristol’s forgotten civil rights scandal

The 1963 Bristol bus boycott paved the way for the 1965 and 1968 Race Relations Acts, which banned employers from discriminating against a person because of the colour of their skin. But who started the boycott and why? And where does Martin Luther King fit in?

Why did Bristolians boycott the buses?

Because the Bristol Omnibus Company – run by the local council – wouldn’t hire black and Asian people on its buses. It had a ‘colour bar’. Despite Bristol’s sizeable Caribbean community, no non-white driver or conductor had even been employed on the network.

Portrait of Paul Stephenson

How could the bus company justify such blatant racism?

The bus company blamed the Bristol branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) which represented bus workers. In theory it was committed to anti-racism, but in 1955 the TGWU had passed a resolution that ‘coloured’ workers should not be employed as bus crews. There’s little doubt racism attitudes played a part. Low-paid white workers were scared that bosses could use an influx of new staff to reduce everyone’s wages across the board.

So who masterminded the boycott?

West Indians Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown had formed an action group to fight discrimination and they asked the articulate West African Paul Stephenson to be their spokesperson. Paul wanted to prove that the colour bar was real. He managed to get an interview at the bus company for a well-qualified young man called Guy Bailey. When the sharply-dressed Guy arrived for his interview, staff saw his black skin and sent him on his way before he’d even sat down.

That sounds like the American South – not the south west of England!

It does. And Paul and co were inspired by the American civil rights movement – namely Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on an Alabama bus and the resulting Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. On 29 April 1963, Paul called a press conference to announce the Bristol bus boycott.

How did Bristol react?

The boycott was widely supported. There were sit-down protests and pickets. Bristol University students marched on the TGWU’s offices. Bristol MP Tony Benn said he’d,“stay off the buses, even if I have to find a bike” and future PM Harold Wilson wished the campaign every success. Paul worked the media, with London journalists travellingwest and comparing Bristol with the American South. The boycott was strictly non-violent. Roy Hackett remembers: ‘I said to everyone, not one stick and not one stone.’

And what about Martin Luther King?

On 28 August 1963, Mr King delivered his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. And in Bristol on the very same day, the bus company promised a change in policy – there would now be ‘complete integration’ on the buses. This followed a TGWU meeting the night before where 500 bus workers had voted against the colour bar. The boycott had succeeded.

What happened next?

By mid-September, Indian-born Raghbir Singh was working as a bus conductor. Harold Wilson’s government brought in the Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968. And in 2009, boycott heroes Paul, Guy and Roy received OBEs for their commitment to improving race relations in Bristol.

In 1992, Bill Morris was elected General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, and the first black leader of a major British trade union.  He remained in this post until 2003 and now sits in the House of Lords.