Leila Hassan Howe: the woman who helped bring black power on to the streets of London | Society

On Monday 2 March 1981, Leila Hassan Howe led a 20,000-person march through the streets of London. It was designed, she said, to “cause maximum disruption” and so, for eight hours, on a working day, the protesters marched; when they stopped the traffic on Blackfriars Bridge the police were so angry they tried to end it there. When they continued down Fleet Street – then synonymous with the British media – Hassan Howe says that “people were throwing banana skins at us”. Yet neither the police nor overt racism in the home of the press could stop them.

The protest that Hassan Howe helped organise – with her partner, the journalist, activist and publisher Darcus Howe – was dubbed the National Black People’s Day of Action. And it was unlike anything seen in Britain before. Today it is considered to be a turning point in black British identity.

The poet Linton Kwesi Johnson would later talk of the “sense of power” and optimism the march gave him, while for the playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah watching the event on TV “was my first experience of us, as a black community, standing up … This was black Britain.” The publisher Eric Huntley, who, with his late wife Jessica, founded the publishers Bogle-L’Ouverture, was so moved he told Hassan Howe he had previously “always intended to go back to Guyana. But after the day of action, that was over.”



The National Black People’s Day of Action near Hyde Park on 2 March 1981. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Hassan Howe had helped arrange the march in response to the deaths of 13 young black people who had been trapped in a house fire in New Cross, south-east London, six weeks earlier. The blaze started during a birthday party for the 16-year-old Yvonne Ruddock, and she was among those who died that night. Many people suspected that the fire was the result of a racist arson attack; the area was notorious for far-right violence (three years earlier the local Moonshot club had been firebombed, and the National Front was implicated). But rather than seriously investigating the suspicion of racist violence, the police were said to be rounding up young black people and trying to get them to confess. Meanwhile the media and government were silent. “Thirteen dead, nothing said” was the chant shouted by protesters highlighting this indifference to the loss of black lives. The march, then, was a response to the urgent need to take a stand and transform a Britain in which, for years, the black community had felt under attack.

Hassan Howe says she realised how pivotal the moment could be at the very first meeting called at the Moonshot to discuss the response to the fire. She expected 50 people to turn up; more than 300 arrived. “There was a lot of anger, people saying ‘enough is enough’,” she recalls. In 1981 there was “a political consciousness, a militancy in the community and we had to take a stand”. Looking back it is no surprise that, just a month later, a full-scale revolt took place in Brixton, south London, in the form of the 1981 uprisings.

Black power, a global grassroots movement to restore pride in being black, had begun to mobilise for change. In the UK this translated into a “self-help” movement for black communities, aiming to bring them together to challenge racism and its impact, while demanding justice from the state. Black power organisations such as the Black Parents Movement, Black Youth Movement and Race Today Collective spent months holding meetings and travelling around the country before the national demonstration. “Black British identity was forged in black power,” says Hassan Howe.

She was born in London in 1948 to a working-class English mother and a father from Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) who worked as a halal butcher; her parents met before the Empire Windrush even docked. Most of her mother’s family had never met a black person before, and on hearing the news that she was dating Ramadhan Hassan, Hassan Howe’s aunt asked her mother, Lilian Ivy Watson: “Oh Lily, what have you gone and done?” He had come to Britain as a seaman and had strong ties to the east African community. Although her mother didn’t like it, their home was a “haven for anyone from east Africa” arriving in London and people would turn up “any time of day or night”, says Hassan Howe.

Ramadhan Hassan was a devout Muslim who ensured his daughter was brought up in the faith. When she was 10, her parents divorced and her father was granted custody. He decided to take his daughter to live in Zanzibar, partly to educate her about the continent. Hassan Howe was initially devastated about moving to Africa and was in floods of tears at the thought of being separated from her mother.

In preparation for the journey, her father told her: “Everything you’ve been taught about Africa and Africans isn’t true.” They travelled through Egypt – taking a riverboat down the Nile – Sudan and Kenya, staying with families her father had supported in London. In Zanzibar a wealthy Arab family offered to have Hassan Howe come to live with them, to “raise her in Islam”, and she went to live with the Souds and their five children. It was a privileged life: her father would visit, and Hassan Howe was happy until revolution struck the island in 1964.

Zanzibar gained independence from the British empire in December 1963 and Hassan Howe remembers the celebrations when the British left. But the Soud household was part of the wealthy Arab elite that the British had empowered at the expense of the African population, and, when the sultan was overthrown in January 1964, they moved in with relatives for safety.

“One day two men with guns came to the house and asked for me,” says Hassan Howe. “Everybody thought that was the end, and we were all praying.” She was taken to the Revolutionary Council, who met in a stadium in the capital. Once there she was handed a telegram – it was from her mother telling her to “get on the last plane that leaves Zanzibar”. The Foreign Office had refused to evacuate Hassan Howe because she was a Zanzibar national but had agreed to ensure her safe passage if her family could pay for a flight.

She returned to London to live with her mother and stepfather. But the England she came back to in 1964 was different to the one she had left. Mass immigration dominated the political scene, and hostility toward the black population was rife. At Plaistow Grammar school, she was one of only three black girls. “It was just horrendous. My life was just made hell. We’d just be sitting there and you’d get a tirade from other students against immigrants and against immigration. No one would play with us in the playground. It was a very isolated and lonely existence.”

Home was no better: her white stepfather had “very racial views” and black people were not allowed into her parents’ working men’s club. “People were born in east London, worked in east London and died in east London,” she says. Her time abroad meant, even if she wanted to, she “could not become a half-white, half-black East End girl, trying to accommodate a lot of the racism”.

Instead, reading became her salvation. Particularly the work of James Baldwin. At 18 she wrote a telegram to the African American author, an “outpouring of me talking about race and racism and that his book [The Fire Next Time] had given me hope and experiences I could relate to”. She still vividly remembers the reply she received: “‘Keep the faith’, signed ‘Jimmy’”. When Baldwin died, the magazine she was editing at the time, Race Today, organised a memorial in Brixton town hall in February 1988, headlined by Maya Angelou.

The Daily Telegraph became the unlikely key to her life as an activist, thanks to an advert for a job at the Institute of Race Relations. In 1971, she started working with the influential writer and activist Ambalavaner Sivanandan in the library. The institute was, she says, a “colonial, academic institution” at the time, but the library had copies of newspapers from global liberation movements including the American Black Panther, and the latest information on racism in Britain – so British black power activists were frequent visitors.

In 1971, Hassan Howe joined the Black Unity and Freedom party (BUFP) to fight for racial justice, and to challenge the idea that black people were “third-class citizens”. After joining she was expected to sell 100 copies of the organisation’s newspaper. She also taught maths and English to children, part of the grassroots black supplementary school movement that taught black children when the state was failing to do so.

The BUFP demonstrated against police brutality, immigration legislation and in solidarity with global movements. But with Sivanandan, Hassan Howe decided to take action closer to home – to overthrow the Institute of Race Relations board – including the Booker brothers, whose wealth came from Caribbean plantations, as well as patrons who had been enriched by British colonies in Africa. First they “packed the membership” by signing up left-leaning members of the public, so by 1972 they had enough members to pass a motion at the AGM to sack the council. The takeover meant the institute’s magazine, Race Today, could also take an altogether more radical turn – hiring Darcus Howe as editor in 1973.

Race Today, February/March 1982 issue.



Race Today, February/March 1982 issue. Photograph: Courtesy of Leila Hassan Howe

Hassan Howe had first met Darcus in 1971 when he arrived at the library to do research. She next saw him at the interview for the editorship – which, “typically”, she says, he only agreed to if he was offered the job in advance. The pair began a relationship in 1977 that was to last until Darcus Howe’s death in 2017, marrying in 1989. Together they transformed Race Today into a beacon of black radical thought and practice. This began in the dead of night in August 1974. Hassan Howe, Darcus and other members of the staff loaded the equipment of the magazine into a post van – assisted by the British Black Panther Olive Morris. Then they drove to a squat in Brixton, where “we broke down the door, changed the locks and moved in”.

The move was to show how the magazine was now on the “front lines” of Brixton to “record and recognise” the struggles of the black working class. Darcus wanted to use the magazine to shift how society viewed black people “from victims to protagonists. That we could shape our own history, we were not reliant on others, we could do it for ourselves”. The pair were heavily influenced by the renowned intellectual CLR James, Darcus Howe’s uncle, who lived above the offices in Brixton, to use the power of a magazine to assist the burgeoning black power movement.

Hassan Howe herself was deputy editor from 1973 and took over as editor in 1986. The magazine covered everything from politics to sport. I was educated by the black literature curated by the community and copies of Race Today were an essential part of this. Topics such as black nurses striking over pay conditions; Asian workers withdrawing their labour in Midlands factories; and the uprisings of black youth against the police were urgent to the community.

The police were a persistent subject. Hassan Howe says the way “they policed us in colonial societies was the same way they policed here, which was with brute force”. In 1981 the issue came to a head when the Metropolitan police force initiated Operation Swamp 81; in five days in April, they stopped and searched almost 1,000 people in Brixton. Hassan Howe says: “It was unbelievable: we’d leave our house and when you’d hit Railton Road they would stop you. Anybody going into Brixton. Old people, young people, people like me.” Such tactics reminded her of apartheid-era South Africa – and the tension built for days. It erupted on 11 April, after a crowd wrongly believed that police were trying to arrest a stabbing victim, Michael Bailey. For two days the police lost control of Brixton as the youth rebelled against years of perceived abuse.

Hassan Howe recalls that the rebellion was well organised. A bus was hijacked. Linton Kwesi Johnson’s famous line “We burn down the George we never burn the landlord”, is a reminder of how a pub that banned black people was attacked; 279 police were injured and Hassan Howe remembers having to step over hundreds of police officers drafted in from around the country who were lying in the street, resting, before getting ready to quell the insurrection. Race Today, of course, was at the front line, recording it all.

Today Hassan Howe sees many parallels between stop-and-search and the recent Black Lives Matter protests. She attended a march in June and found the “atmosphere, passion and the desire for change absolutely fantastic”. There is genuine warmth and excitement in her voice when she notes that people were “talking with ease about structural racism” and says that demands such as defunding the police are “really positive”.

In 2019 Hassan Howe co-edited the Race Today anthology Here to Stay, Here to Fight, but was struck by how little the younger generation knew about the history of black activism in Britain. “How would they know? The contemporary black movement is not taught in schools. That history needs to be told in schools.

“Change is made by the young,” she says, but it is “important to us to know that there were people before us who had experience of fighting the system.” To know “there is this black radical tradition that was very important that made a change in Britain”. If her activism in this area is useful today, she says, “then our job is done”.

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