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28 October 2020

Profile: Olive Morris

Black History Month 2020
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For our final week of Black History Month, we’re focusing on Black political activism. This is the story of Olive Morris.

Olive Morris was born in 1952 in St Catherine, Jamaica, and emigrated to England with her family when she was aged nine as part of the Windrush generation. She left school without any qualifications and would later study at London College of Printing.

On the 15th November 1969, aged seventeen, Olive embroiled herself in an incident between the police and a Nigerian diplomat — Clement Gomwalk. Clement parked on Atlantic Road in Brixton to drop off some documents leaving his wife and children in the car. The police assumed that Clement had stolen the vehicle — a Mercedes — and when they began to arrest and beat him Olive came forwards to prevent the racially motivated attack. The police turned on Olive and others, attacking them. Olive was so badly beaten by the police that when she was released from arrest her brother barely recognised her. During her arrest, she was threatened with sexual violence. And because she was dressed in men’s clothes, she was subjected the humiliation of being made to strip to prove she was a woman.

This incident would become a defining moment for Olive, and from there she dedicated her life to the Black political movement’s struggle for liberation.

In the early 1970’s, Olive became a member of the British Black Panther Movement (which became the Black Workers Movement) and Brixton Black Women’s Group which gave women a space to talk to each other about their experiences and develop unity within the community. Olive became an important core member of these groups.

Along with her friend Liz Obi, Olive squatted in buildings to enable community spaces to be developed. The buildings became a venue for groups to meet, a centre for political activism and a space for Sabarr Bookshop to be set up — one of the first Black community bookshops.

Olive moved to Manchester in 1975 to study at Manchester University, and continued to be politically active. She helped to set up a supplementary school campaigning with local black parents to improve the education of their children. She also co-founded Manchester Black Women’s co-operative and Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group.

Olive Morris sadly died aged 27 in July 1979, after a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma the previous year, but her legacy lives on. Lambeth Council named a building after her in 1986 and in 2011 The Olive Morris memorial award was established to provide bursaries to young black women so that they can follow in her footsteps.

In June 2020, Google launched a doodle in her honour to celebrate what would have been her 68th birthday.

What are the important lessons for us in 2020?

In 2018, Olive was recognised as one of the black women who changed British history. Her courage, and instincts to fight against systemic racism continues to be felt as a prominent voice of leadership in the fight against discrimination.

Back in the 1970s, there was little support for encouraging Black people to get involved in politics and it wasn’t until 1987 that the UK would see our first Black woman as an MP — Dianne Abbott. Olive was a trail blazer, and even now ethnic minorities remain under-represented in British politics — even though we’ve got the most diverse Parliament in history right now.

In 1996, Operation Black Vote was established to address the Black British and ethnic minority democratic deficit. Their work covers four principal areas:

While Accord is not a politically affiliated union, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage members interested in politics to become more involved and political education and representation is an important aspect to dismantling in-built societal prejudices. They run several schemes such as MP shadowing and other education programmes to boost engagement within the black and ethnic minority communities. So, if this sounds like something you’d be interested in, look at their website and subscribe to their mailing list.

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