800 years since the Magna Carta: Remembering the British struggle for ethnic minority rights

As we approach the 800th aniversary of Magna Carta, let us recall other important anniversaries which mark the struggle for black and minority ethnic rights in the UK.

Laurence Brown
15 June 2015
This year will mark 800 years since the signing of Magna Carta, the charter guaranteeing for the first time the rule of law between the monarch and nobility. It is often described as the first of many steps in England to increasing political, civil and social rights. This gathered pace during the 19th century with the Great Reform Acts and culminated in 1928 with universal female suffrage and the 1945 vision of the Welfare State.

But notably absent in this broad narrative of gradual liberal reform are the discordant experiences of Britain’s ethnic minorities, their rapid and repeated exclusions from ‘the rights of freeborn Englishmen’, and how their own activism and agency has enriched British politics.

During the second half of the 20th century, Britain experienced a civil rights movement that was arguably as profound as that which reshaped the USA. However, unlike the American civil rights movement which has been memorialised in documentaries, films, museums and monuments and extensively taught in universities and schools (including in Britain), the British civil rights struggle is largely excluded from the curriculum, cultural institutions and public debate.

2015 also marks:

  • - The 60th anniversary of strikes and demonstrations against the colour bar that excluded non-white workers from the transport industry.
  • - The 50th anniversary of the formation of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) which was a coalition to challenge racism in employment, housing and public life.
  • - The 40th anniversary of the conference that resulted in a new national Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) to give meaning to legislation against discrimination.
  • - The 30th anniversary of urban riots reacting to racial profiling and police violence.
  • - These are not events that occurred in Alabama, Georgia, Chicago or Oakland; they took place in Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and London.

Many of the participants in these events saw themselves as engaged in civil rights campaigns that paralleled the protests in America, led by Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael or Malcolm X. In Britain, such mobilisations were much more ethnically diverse, and spread across a range of domains and organisations.

The Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE), of which I am part, is undertaking an event-analysis of the local and national politics that shaped the British civil rights movement.

The diversity of groups and political visions that coalesced in struggles against racism was deeply similar to the popular radicalism of the early 19th century that has formed a central focus for British history.

Our research maps the dense networks of activists who linked together different forms of campaigns and politics from resisting slum clearances to supporting children’s education work, from industrial activism to public health advocacy, from challenging deportations to sponsoring anti-racist cultural projects. It was these multiple visions and mobilisations that gave the civil rights movement in Britain its popular appeal, its political impact and cultural significance.

Our research draws extensively on contemporary media coverage, including the unique monitoring of regional newspapers conducted by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) and now held by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre in Manchester Central Library.

We are conducting new research in archival collections across the UK, drawing extensively on rare material such as flyers and posters, along with new oral interviews, to analyse the local dynamics of political contention and how these interacted nationally.

The language used to claim civil rights and challenge racism changed fundamentally during the 1960s to 1980s as terms such as ‘coloured’, ‘black’ and ‘Asian’ were claimed as the basis for political coalition-building by ethnic minorities. Far from being static, ethnic identities were themselves remade through the shifting struggle for citizenship.

As we reflect on historical legacy of Magna Carta this year, we should also remember that the name Runnymede refers to more than simply the field where the charter was signed. It is also the title of one of Britain’s leading anti-racist organisations, The Runnymede Trust, which was part of a constellation of groups which in different ways sought to claim full citizenship for Britain’s ethnic minorities.


This article was first published at Manchester University Policy Blogs. (It has been updated for publication here.)

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