Rock and Roll against racism

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Notting Hill in the 1950s

"Keep Britain White" campaign grafitti in Notting Hill in 1958

A pioneering anti-racist organisation was founded by musicians in the aftermath of the 1958 Notting Hill riots. It's time that the Stars Campaign for Interracial Friendship got its due.

In the late summer of 1958 racist violence broke out on the streets of Notting Hill, west London. At its origin were many complicated social, economic and political factors. Against a backdrop of slum housing, concerns over employment and “interracial marriage” was a nascent racism against the newly arrived African-Caribbean and Asian communities. This had been exacerbated by a renewed fascist movement around the Keep Britain White campaign orchestrated by the White Defence League and Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement.

Teddy Boys, Britain’s first teenage sub-culture, were primarily responsible for the attacks on black people. Within days the black community had organised self-defence groups to counter the violence they faced. In the aftermath of the riots much debate ensued to ascertain the causes.

One group of people acted before any other to organise against the violence and promote multiculturalism. This was a group of musicians and friends who came together to use their celebrity to tackle racism head on. Using the medium they knew best, music, they formed the Stars Campaign for Interracial Friendship (SCIF).

The Musicians Union had been groundbreaking in its response to racism. As early as 1947 its official policy was to oppose racism wherever it was found and it was one of the first organisations to demand a boycott of apartheid South Africa. Its initiatives were integral to opposing racism in British dance halls — in 1958 after a sustained campaign the colour bar was broken in Mecca ballrooms in Nottingham, Birmingham, Streatham and Sheffield. After the Notting Hill riots the reaction from musicians was swift. There were two weekly musical newspapers in Britain at the time — The New Musical Express, which was orientated toward the teenage pop and rock ’n’ roll market, and Melody Maker, a more earnest publication that concentrated on folk, blues and jazz and skiffle. The following appeal appeared on the front page of Melody Maker on 5 September 1958, just a day after the violence had finally subsided:

At a time when reason has given way to violence in parts of Britain, we, the people of all races in the world of entertainment, appeal to the public to reject racial discrimination in any shape of form. Violence will settle nothing; it will only cause suffering to innocent people and create fresh grievances. We appeal to our audiences everywhere to join us in opposing any and every aspect of colour prejudice wherever it may appear.

By the following week Melody Maker declared:

Letters, telephone messages, even telegrams and personal callers offering support have come into this office from all directions since last Friday. They confirm that in the jazz world there is a lot of racial tolerance and at present, indignation about the whipped-up outbursts of anti-colour feeling waiting to be tapped.

A two page article, “Frank Sinatra Says Jazz Has No Colour Bar”, also appeared in that week’s edition. By then folk singer Fred Dallas had teamed up with jazz players John Dankworth, Cleo Laine, Winifred Atwell, Ken Colyer, George Melly and skiffle artists Russell Quaye and Hylda Syms, as well as other prominent cultural figures, to form SCIF. At its initial meeting, they appointed their most high profile member, the actor Laurence Olivier, as chairman. The organisation was loose but they decided its strategy would be to organise around the single issue of racism and promote racial harmony. SCIF member Eric Hobsbawm was later to say, “The purpose of SCIF…was to articulate through the combined presence of music and culture, and left activists and writers, a cultural policy of racial inclusion and social solidarity at a time of crisis.”

A statement in opposition to the racism behind the riots was needed. An eight page broadsheet, What the Stars Say, was produced and handed around jazz clubs in the West End and the streets of Notting Hill. It was SCIF’s mission statement:

The ideals of racial tolerance and harmony through the example of those who earn their living in the world of art and entertainment, and in the associated realms of journalism, writing and the productive side of show business. Its aims are: to promote understanding between races and banish ignorance about racial characteristics; to combat instances of social prejudice by verbal and written protests; to set an example to the general public through members personal race relations; and to use all available means to publicise their abhorrence of racial discrimination.

Their first high profile event was a Christmas party for children of all races chosen from three local schools in west London. Some 250 children attended from the West Indian, Irish, African and English communities, food was provided by the American Embassy and the BBC televised the party. SCIF’s first permanent initiative was to found a club to promote interracial mixing and openly oppose the colour bar.

The Harmony Club opened its doors on 19 January 1959. Josephine Douglas, co-host of Britain’s first pop show, Six-Five Special, hosted the club. A special message of support from American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson was read out at the opening.

The club opened twice a week, and Dankworth, Laine, Humphrey Littleton and Dickie Valentine, among others, attended and performed. The club encouraged “young people of all races together in a non-political, non-sectarian social club”. Black and white people would meet and talk together, but most importantly dance with each other. Furthermore Teddy Boys who had been behind much of the racist violence in the riots were encouraged to attend. The setting up of an interracial club on the very street in Notting Hill where some of the worst racist violence had been seen was a brave decision. Many of the organisers received death threats, while the building was under constant alert from arson attacks.

Despite its best intentions the Harmony Club lasted only six weeks. Nevertheless, it spawned other attempts to find a winning club formula. Blues musician Alexis Korner went on to run a new SCIF venue in the Paddington area for an older, paying clientele, and SCIF also set up another successful club in Soho.

The White Defence League intensified its activity around Notting Hill. Keep Britain White leaflets, posters and graffiti were everywhere, to such a degree that the BBC programme Panorama ran a feature on them in April 1959. Their leader Colin Jordan explained, “The ultimate future of our nation [if] mass coloured immigration continues as it is doing now will inevitably lead to a coffee coloured half-breed Britain of the future and we are going to fight to stop that.” The second part of the Panorama programme centred on SCIF and carried interviews with its leading members to counteract Jordan. Vice-chair John Dankworth explained what SCIF was about:

The objectives of the campaign are largely to counteract any cranky organisations which try to preach the gospel of a master race anywhere...organisations such as Mr whats-a-names [Colin Jordan] seem laughable on the face of it but they aren’t really laughable because Adolf Hitler started a similar organisation about 20 or 25 years ago which caused the deaths of millions and millions of people and the suffering of millions more.

Asked why he had become involved in SCIF Lonnie Donegan replied, “In my little span of life I’ve come across such a sea of bigotries and prejudices that I get so fed up with now that I have to do something about it.” Panorama then interviewed jazz singer Cleo Laine:

Panorama: Now it was put to me earlier by the spokesman for the WDL that coloured people ought to be repatriated from this country to their country of origin. Now where were you born for instance?
Laine: Southall, Middlesex, or [affects accent] “Sarfall”, Middlesex
Panorama: So in fact you are a Londoner, you’re an Englishman? [sic]
Laine: Yes
Panorama: Where would you be, if you had to be repatriated, where would that be to?
Laine: Southall, Middlesex [laughs]

Throughout the spring of 1959 there was increased violence against black people. In May Kelso Cochrane from Antigua was walking home from hospital, his arm in a sling, when he was set upon by a gang of white youths. Cochrane was fatally stabbed during the incident. Eye witnesses said they heard repeated racist abuse directed at Cochrane. Though he had had no money on him the police insisted it was a robbery and no racial motive existed. For black people in Notting Hill a sense of déjà vu prevailed — Scotland Yard had gone to great lengths to refute racism as a cause of the 1958 riots.

This became a defining moment in post-war British history and sullied relations between the black community and the Metropolitan police for decades to follow; it is arguable whether they ever recovered. Years later Peter Dawson, a member of Mosley’s Union Movement at the time, admitted it was a member of their party that had killed Cochrane in a racially motivated attack.

Immediately following the death of Cochrane, SCIF issued another edition of What the Stars Say, which they distributed around Notting Hill. The lead article was an anti-racist polemic written by Frank Sinatra specifically for SCIF, entitled “You Can’t Hate And Be Happy”. Also on the front page an entreaty called “very urgently on all men and women who respect their fellow human creatures, uncompromisingly to denounce all instances of racial intolerance they may meet with... That every man and woman living in our country shall be judged entirely by his or her personal qualities and not by the racial group into which each of us happens to be born.”

Mixed-raced married couples Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine and Lennie Hayton and Lena Horne included photos of themselves happy together in clear opposition to Mosley’s call for a prohibition on mixed marriages. In another article the broadsheet carried information from “an international panel of scientists appointed by the United Nations which has found that racial discrimination has no scientific foundation in biological fact and that the range of mental capacities in all races is the same.”

Lonnie Donegan wrote, “The worst kind of bigotry of all is racial prejudice.” Fellow SCIF member Tommy Steele declared, “Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Joe Louis...show me better whites than these.” Karl Dallas explained: “We recruited Lonnie and Tommy as we knew the Teddy Boys listened to them and rock ’n’ roll came from black America so we thought we could challenge the racism by using the stars they liked.”

Later that year Mosley stood for election in Notting Hill and was convincingly defeated. Cochrane’s death and the thousands of hours of work put in to combat the fascists by SCIF and many other organisations and individuals had undermined his campaign. Though racism did not disappear after the election, with Mosley and the White Defence League in retreat, SCIF’s raison d’être diminished. By the end of 1959 SCIF had dissolved.

For the jazz and blues world the reverence of black musicians had often informed their politics. In pop music and rock ’n’ roll this corollary was sometimes not there, as audiences in the UK often heard black American songs for the first time through white performers.

The first mass sub-culture for British teenagers was the Teddy Boy, and although it adopted a musical expression, it was primarily a social manifestation of alienation, dissatisfaction and post-war hangover. By 1960 it was beginning to wane, certainly in London, and in its place a new sub-culture was forming.

Modernists, who SCIF member Colin MacInnes discusses so eloquently in his 1958 novel Absolute Beginners, were not the same as the Teddy Boys. They celebrated black culture. They shared the same clothes, the same clubs, the same drugs and the same music as their West Indian neighbours.

Part of the job that was done by SCIF in its short life — championing black culture — was taken up by these mods in London. It was also passionately promoted by a new wave of musicians in the 1960s. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Animals, and so on, were all blues fanatics, constantly name checking the black sources of their inspiration and bringing black American artists over to the UK to tour with them in large arenas.

SCIF’s most important contribution, though, is that an organised black and white anti-fascist organisation had been awoken alongside the black British response to racism. There was also much that had happened during this time in the wider world to challenge at least some of the racist preconceptions that the 1958 generation had ingested. The Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa and the struggle against apartheid, the March on Washington and the ongoing civil rights movement in the US, the Algerian war of independence, the Ban the Bomb campaign — all had an impact in a Britain slowly coming to terms with its diminishing role as a world player.

The world SCIF inhabited dictated its response to the events around them. There were no massive SCIF gigs in 1958 or 1959, not because they didn’t happen, but because they couldn’t happen. A concert such as Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday celebration in June 1988 at Wembley stadium would have been inconceivable in 1959 for both political and technological reasons. The activity SCIF undertook was small scale, but only in comparison with later events in the 1970s and onwards. Black and white people were simply not allowed to convene in most establishments in 1958. To set up multiracial dances, when none existed, minutes from the headquarters of a violent white supremacist organisation was not only courageous, but one of the few tools available to them as artists at the time.

The so-called colour bar was everywhere; it was an insidious modus operandi, not always visible as it was in housing, but often with a more harmful effect in a work or a social setting. Consequently racism presented itself in ways that were not always obvious, and combatting this prejudice required dexterity. Many from SCIF had no experience in such terrain and had no reference points; this was new territory and in many ways they were writing the guidebook for what was to follow.

Until now the history of SCIF has been lost. This needs to be redressed. It was an important and groundbreaking organisation, whose impact and influence in fighting racism with music has not been acknowledged. SCIF is the estranged parent of Rock Against Racism and the grandparent of Love Music Hate Racism. Now it should have its rightful place in anti-racist history alongside them.