BRISTOL BUS BOYCOTT
Born in Trench Town, a suburb of Kingston, Jamaica, the area was immortalised in song by Bob Marley.
He was christened Lurel Roy Hackett, but grew up in poverty.
When he left school he had a variety of jobs, working as an insurance broker, in a drug store and on a coffee plantation, but struggled to make ends meet. He had a brief relationship that gave him a daughter, Claudette, but she lived with her mother.
In 1952, aged 24, he heard a speech by British politician Enoch Powell, encouraging people from the Caribbean to come to the UK in order to, “have a better life.”
Roy boarded a ship bound for Britain, but the weather was so rough that the ship was forced to take shelter in Newfoundland, Canada. Roy thought he had landed in Britain and got off the ship – before being called back. He said later, “If they drop me off there, it wouldn’t make no difference – I just wouldn’t have got my luggage.”
He finally disembarked in Liverpool, going to the West Indian community in Toxteth. He was one of the Windrush generation.
But he couldn’t find a job or decent accommodation and said he was treated like a dog. So, he moved to Wolverhampton – but it was no better there.
Then it was on to London, where he finally got a job as a labourer with the engineering and construction company Taylor Woodrow.
He was sent west to work on the Hinkley Point power station in Somerset – and went to live in Bristol.
His first night there he could find no accommodation so slept in a doorway. A white passer-by took pity on him and he “just come and throw an overcoat over me.”
He then got accommodation in the St Paul’s area of Bristol, sharing with his cousin Irving Williams and three other men. They shared the downstairs rooms of a house with a family with children. There was a tin bath and they were allowed to bathe once a week – outside.
By now he was working for the Robert McAlpine company in South Wales. He had to get up at 4am to get to work. He was a tea-boy and general labourer.
He shared his duties with a young, muscular Welshman, Thomas Woodward. The latter drove Roy mad with his constant singing. In later years Thomas changed his name to Tom Jones – and became famous for his singing. Roy used to claim he had discovered him.
By now Roy was earning enough money to invite his childhood sweetheart Edna over to Britain. They got married in 1959 and had two children, Dawn and Clive. They had their own house and car.
But they still experienced racism. One Sunday, when washing his beloved Vauxhall Cresta, Roy was challenged by his white next-door neighbour, complaining that Roy could afford a car whilst he only had a motorbike. The neighbour also complained he was being teased at work for having a black neighbour and suggested Roy “Go home!”
He said at the time it was unsafe for black people to go out of their homes as there were so many attacks, predominantly by ‘Teddy Boys’.
Edna wanted to work so she applied for a job as a Bristol Omnibus Company conductress but was turned down on grounds of both sex and race.
By now Roy had befriended Owen Henry, a travel agent and black activist. Owen persuaded Roy to join him in his campaign for better housing and employment opportunities for the West Indian community.
Together they founded the ‘Commonwealth Co-ordinated Committee (CCC), being joined by Clifford Drummond and Audley Evans. They met on Sundays at the ‘Speedy Bird Café’, where they would, “Drink fish tea and Red Stripe beer and listen to calypso music, with a paraffin heater to keep warm.”
Owen was the Chairman of the Committee, Roy the Public Relations Officer. And they grew. Paul Stephenson, a young social worker with a degree became President and spokesperson, and others joined as well.
One young member, Guy Reid-Bailey, applied for a job as a bus driver and was invited for a job interview. When he turned up for the interview, he was told the bus company were waiting for an Englishman called Guy Bailey. Guy said he was English and that he was the applicant. He was immediately told there was no vacancy and was sent away.
Roy bumped into Guy, who was in tears, in the street – and he decided enough was enough.
He called an emergency meeting of the CCC and demanded action. They formed another committee, the ‘West Indian Development Council’. They were joined by a man called Prince Brown. Roy pointed out Rosa Parks’ action in Montgomery, Alabama, had led to a bus boycott, which had proved successful and suggested they imitate the action.
He told the others that the Bristol Omnibus Company had introduced a colour bar in 1955 and would only employ black or Asian people as cleaners. He contrasted this with London Transport, who were actively recruiting and hiring in the Caribbean. Roy said Guy had been turned down, “Not because he was Jamaican or foreign, but because he was black. It is degrading!”
Roy marched down to the offices of the bus company and barged his way into the manager’s office. He told the manager he was not asking for black people to be treated equally, he was DEMANDING IT! “If he can’t drive it, the bus won’t be moving, will it?”
The manager offered Guy another interview – but his bosses said no.
The Transport and General Worker’s Union (TGWU) supported the colour bar, saying they were protecting jobs for local people.
And so, the Bristol Bus Boycott began in April 1963, with Roy at the helm.
The protestors stood in Fishponds Road, blocking the entrance to the city’s main bus station. Over 3,000 people joined the protest – and Roy was delighted many of them were white. They marched on the city centre and organised a system of ensuring people could get to work by car.
Roy said, “What we started now, we won’t stop until we get what we want.”
The students of Bristol University supported the boycott and refused to use public transport.
As did the local MP, Tony Benn (Bristol South East), gave them full support. He said, “I will stay off the buses, even if I have to find a bike.” Benn joined them on the barricades and even made cups of tea.
And the Leader of the Opposition, Harold Wilson, gave them full support, promising Race Relations legislation if Labour won the next election.
Roy said he was threatened and received hate mail but was pleased nobody ever threw stones at him.
The boycott got national attention – and it did its job. After 4 months, the bus company asked for negotiations. There was a vote by Bristol bus workers, who chose to remove the colour bar.
On the 28th of August 1963, the bar was lifted – the very same day that Martin Luther King made his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
Roy called the bus boycott Britain’s own civil rights movement.
The following month the first person of colour was appointed by the Bristol Omnibus Company, Raghbir Singh, a bus conductor. This was closely followed by two Jamaicans and two Pakistanis.
And Harold Wilson kept his promise too. After winning the 1964 election, he introduced the 1965 Race Relations Act, the first anti-racism legislation in Britain’s history.
A few years later Roy tried to board a bus. He found the driver was the very manager he had clashed with at the start of the boycott. The manager was delighted to see him, shook his hand – and gave him a free ride.
In 1965, Roy went to Smethwick to hear Malcolm X speak, just before he was assassinated.
And to his horror, Enoch Powell gave his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, encouraging racial conflict – the very man who had encouraged West Indians to come to Britain in the first place.
Roy continued fighting for equal rights. “I was born an activist.” He said it was his duty to challenge racism wherever he saw it.
He stayed involved with the CCC (Commonwealth Co-ordinated Committee), trying to improve housing and employment opportunities. It is now the ‘Bristol West Indian Parents and Friends Association’.
In 1968 they founded the St Paul’s Festival, now Carnival – second only in the UK to the Notting Hill Carnival. The very first festival it poured constantly. He described the carnival as, “A taste of the Caribbean, a taste of home.”
He continued working in construction until he retired.
In 1993, he received Maundy Money from the Queen in Bristol Cathedral.
In 2009, Roy received an OBE.
In 2013 the union UNITE (the successor to the TGWU) apologised to the Bristol community for their stance with the colour bar.
The following year, Roy and the other surviving leaders of the boycott were invited to the very bus station they had picketed, for the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the 50th anniversary of their achievements. Roy gave a speech.
UNITE opened a Roy Hackett room in their offices. “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
Roy was described as witty and down-to-earth, but a bundle of energy.
Meanwhile, Roy was visiting schools and talking to children about the importance of racial (and every other kind of) equality. His simple advice to the young was, “Never stop trying.”
He was immensely proud when his grandson came home from school and said there was a large picture of him up on a school wall.
He was an active member of the Bristol race Equality Council.
In 2019, he was chosen as one of the ‘St Paul’s Seven Saints’ – seven people chosen who had made a significant contribution to the community (Clifford Drummond was another). To commemorate this, artist Michele Curtis painted a mural for each of them.
Roy’s mural fell down in 2021, as the wall collapsed. It has not yet been replaced. Someone suggested a statue instead, on the plinth of the statue to the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston. Roy’s response was, “What? So they can tear me down in 20 years?”
Roy was a big supporter of Black Lives Matter. He considered it the passing of the torch onto a new generation. He was always happy to give advice and assistance to the young. “A lot of young people ask me if I can help them and I always say ‘Yes – as long as I can sit in the shade”.
In 2020, Roy was elevated to MBE.
When he died, current Bristol Labour MP, Thangham Debbonaire said, “He was an inspiration to so many and taught us all so much about standing up for justice and equality. I will miss his warm smile, quick wit and charm, as well as his deep and lasting commitment to the people of Bristol and to ending racism”.
At his death community activist Lynn Mareno said, “Bristol loves Roy Hackett”.
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