Unearthing The Forgotten History Of The British Black Panthers

Rarely documented in history, little has been known about the Black Panthers in Britain.

Rarely documented in history, little has been known about the Black Panthers in Britain. With the exception of a handful of rare projects, the task of piecing together the emergence of this resistance movement has sadly been missing from British historic accounts.

You would think it would be a pre-requisite to make this part of Black British history widely available before fictional dramatisations are commissioned in TV and film, but unfortunately it is only after the fact, that the question of historic accuracy has now become a widely debated issue.

The heightened debates ensuing over the casting choices and narrative thread of the fictional made-for-TV drama, Guerrilla has certainly brought to attention the need for more documentation of Black British culture and history. From the issue of the exclusion of leading Black female characters in its cast, to the debate about Political BlacknessGuerrilla has sent social media into hyperdrive, following the recent screening and Q&A. Now with social media intensely engaged in polarised debates across race, gender and generations – the lack of context or knowledge about the nuanced and complex group who made up members of the Black British Panthers, has started to create a reductive narrative around the movement itself. With little distinction between fact and fiction on Twitter, it warrants the case that maybe some of these disparities could have been avoided, if the documented accounts of the history of the Black British Panthers were in fact in the mainstream.

While there is significant validity in the question about the exclusion of Black Women in Guerilla, it has also brought to light the bigger issue about the lack of awareness in the UK about the former members and the movement they formed. Without widespread knowledge of the detailed historic accounts, complexities and circumstances that led to the founding and eventual disbanding of the British Black Panthers and Black Power Movements, the movement remained forgotten. Founded in 1968, by the Nigerian playwright Obi B. Egbuna, the leadership was taken over by Althea Jones Lecointe after Obi’s arrest and as a movement grew to include up to 3000 members until it’s eventual disbandment around 1973, as members moved on.

For years, strangely devoid of any mention in the the British School Curriculum and scant historic attention, the first real documentation of the British Black Panther movement was put together by a youth project in 2013 commissioned and produced by Photofusion. ‘The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement’, project in collaboration with Organised Youth, sought out and interviewed 11 former members of the British Black Panthers and Black Power group. Documenting, transcribing and presenting the interviews in an exhibition and a book, little up until that point had been known about the actual inner workings of the movement through the perspective of it’s former members, let alone it’s national impact in Post-Colonial Britain through the late 60’s and early 70’s.

In one of the featured interviews, Liz Obi former Black Panther, explains “Many people aren’t even aware that there was a British Black Power movement. I see the movement as forming part of a wider struggle that black people were waging against their status as second-class citizens in Britain. As a result of which we saw the passing of anti-discrimination legislation like the Race Relations Act which made it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins.”

The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement project, featured specially commissioned portraits, original photography from Neil Kenlock and completed unedited transcripts from interviews with Black Panther members. Darcus Howe (who recently died), was interviewed alongside Neil Kenlock, Leila Howe, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Danny DaCosta, Liz Obi, Kendrick Goppy, Farrukh Dhondy, Beverly Bryan, Barbara Beese and Altheia Jones-LeConte.

A fascinating collection, the interviews give insights not only into the structure of the movements across London but the links to other regions in Manchester and Birmingham. Across the different perspectives you see a complex and far from rose-tinted view of a group of people driven to make change. Made up of a mix of members across upper-middle class students arriving from post-colonial countries and working class immigrants, the British Panthers squatted and communed across various houses in London. Two houses became the main meeting points, one in North London obtained through a donation from John Berger for the house in Tollington Park and the other through Vanessa Redgrave who donated the house on Shakespeare Road, Brixton. Forming the two main bases, the British Panthers organised protests, youth classes and set up bookshops from these locations.

Lizzy King, the Community Programme Manager at Photofusion, writes in the introduction of the book how they came to make this project, “When I started to research the British Black Panther movement, I was vaguely aware of a few names and events. Olive Morris House used to steal the sun from my flat’s balcony at a certain point in the day. I never knew it’s namesake Olive Morris, former Panther and founding member of the Brixton Black Women’s group. Or that Darcus Howe, the man that many young people recognise for attacking the BBC after they accused him of rioting during Summer 2011, was a part of the British Black Panther Movement’s central committee and a key player in the historic Mangrove Nine trial. When we set out to meet, interview and photograph former Panthers, we had no idea how unplumbed the ground we were breaking was, or how hospitable, entertaining, and passionate the people we were due to meet would be.”

Olive Morris

Over the past year, with calls for more diverse content and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movements, it’s been no coincidence that resistance movements have sparked not only the interest of the younger generation but also created intrigue and generated controversy across advertisingfilm and television.

With calls for more diversity in television and film, the commissioning of new film and TV drama’s that reflect and represent more diverse audiences, have been seen as decisive steps in the UK to address those disparities. Announced last year, two major TV series which included Guerrilla directed by John Ridley for Sky Atlantic/Showtime and a 6 part BBC series directed by Steve McQueen, were commissioned in the UK. Steve McQueen’s forthcoming BBC drama, will tell the story of a West Indian community in the heart of London across three decades, beginning at the moment of Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 and is centred around the Mangrove restaurant in Ladbroke Grove, which is also the subject of a forthcoming film.

Guerrilla although initially conceived by John Ridley as a fictional US drama set around a couple in San Franscisco in the 70’s, evolved into a transatlantic co-production with Idris Elba’s production company. Speaking to the Guardian, Ridley commented on his initial hesitation of adapting the story from a British perspective, “My initial reaction was that my story just didn’t feel like a British story,” Ridley continues “But after speaking with Darcus [Howe], Farrukh [Dhondy] and Neil [Kenlock], I began to see that there were elements that were very, very similar. The struggles, the small indignities, the sense of a collective working together. As an American we tend to look at the UK as being so progressive and elevated with Windrush, and that is true to an extent, but beneath that there were troubles, issues, disregard and disenfranchisement.” The TV drama will premiere on tv screens on the 13th of April, and has already triggered debate after the premiere of the first episode in the UK, primarily due to the remarks from it’s director.

The case remains, that while our screens will look like a feeding frenzy around these important subjects, the facts still need to be unearthed and widely read. Birmingham City University are now offering the first university course in Black Studies, and one of the few books which includes research about the Black Power Movement, was recently reissued – Robin Bunce and Paul Field’s book Darcus Howe: A Politicial Biography. Both writers and researchers were also enlisted as consultants on Guerrilla and the Mangrove film, alongside Darcus Howe himself prior to his death and other Black Panther members Farukh Dondy and Leila Hassan. As more archives surface and research continues, resources are also being made available to teachers and students, such as Our Migration Story.

A few copies of the Organised Youth Project book are available via Photofusion and feature original photography from former Panther Neil Kenlock who was also the co-founder of radio station Choice FM in Brixton.