Darcus Howe, who died last month, was a central figure in the radical black movement in Britain. He developed his politics from his roots in Trinidad through the fight against the National Front and the Mangrove Nine campaign against police harassment. Christian Høgsbjerg tells the story of his life.
The black Trinidadian political radical Darcus Howe was one of the leading ideological agitators of the British Black Power Movement, and a lifelong rebel and “troublemaker” who made a critical contribution to the making and shaping of modern multicultural “post-colonial” Britain. As Howe’s biographers Robin Bunce and Paul Field note, in the face of the British colonial myth of the “civilising mission”, “Howe and the Black Power Movement would civilise Britain by challenging the state-licensed barbarism of the Metropolitan Police, by teaching Britain to become a harmonious multiracial society, by bringing ‘reason to race’.”
Alongside his rich and inspiring record of activism in the fight against racism, and though perhaps best known among a wider audience for his later work as a campaigning journalist and television broadcaster, Howe should also be remembered as an important figure of the post-war British New Left.
Following in the footsteps of his great uncle and mentor, the Trinidadian Marxist historian C L R James, Howe intellectually fused traditions of English and Caribbean radicalism, and saw himself as standing in a revolutionary tradition of socialism from below. Nicknamed Darcus, Rhett Radford Leighton Howe was born in Trinidad in 1943, then part of the British Empire, the son of a local teacher and Anglican priest. Like C L R James (whose Barbadian-born grandfather — and Darcus’s great-grandfather — Josh Rudder, became the first black locomotive driver in colonial Trinidad), Howe was a keen independent reader and critical thinker who won a prestigious exhibition scholarship to the island’s elite Queen’s Royal College. QRC primarily existed for children of the white colonial elite and was modelled on English public schools, even down to the architecture, as Howe would later note after seeing the clocktower of Dulwich College in London.
Like James decades before him, Howe would become more interested in life outside of the walls of the classrooms of QRC, not least the cricket pitch, but also the wider popular culture and creativity to be found in the working class suburbs of Port-of-Spain, expressed in calypso and Carnival. By the mid-1950s a mass nationalist movement had emerged in Trinidad, and like thousands of others, Howe attended and was enthralled by the People’s National Movement rallies which regularly involved impassioned anti-colonial speeches by leader Eric Williams at the “University of Woodford Square”.
More troubling to his family and the great expectations they had for him, Howe also joined up with the Renegades, a band of urban poor steelpan players who regularly did battle with other gangs of local youth. Here Howe developing a lasting understanding, rapport and ability to engage with movements of the dispossessed and alienated people of the street.
In 1961, a year before Trinidad became formally independent, Howe graduated from QRC and as an aspiring 18 year old law student decided to come to Britain, the “mother country” he had heard so much about. Before Howe left, his grandmother Florrie told him to find C L R James in London, telling him that “he won’t regret it”. After finally running into James at Willesden tube station in 1962, the two became close associates, sharing a mutual love of cricket, and Howe slowly came to see what his grandmother had meant.
James, who had first made the move to Britain in 1932 and since become a leading anti-colonialist activist and important anti-Stalinist Marxist theorist who had debated black liberation with Trotsky in Mexico, now helped his young great-nephew orientate politically. James also gave Howe a copy of his classic 1938 history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins — a work that oddly enough had not been available in the QRC school library and was to become an inspiration. As Howe would later note, The Black Jacobins represented a “revolutionary intervention… Caribbean peoples and activists, including myself, have drawn strength and clarity from the work as we hastened our way to independence, and as we continue to challenge European governments on issues of race and post-colonial domination.”
In London Howe soon experienced police harassment for himself, as well as forms of both institutional and popular racism common to other migrant communities in Britain. Like many of his generation he identified with and soon threw himself into activity in the growing movements of resistance around civil rights and Black Power. Howe met Malcolm X and saw Martin Luther King speak in London in the 1960s, spoke alongside Ralph Miliband against the Vietnam War, and then, during the revolutionary tumult of 1968, visited student occupations in Paris. He formed his own Black Power group, the Black Eagles, which organised street patrols in Notting Hill “with the aim of policing the police” in the manner of the Black Panther Party in America.
Before 1968 was out, Howe — fast establishing a reputation for himself as an impressive orator, journalist and organiser — had visited Canada with James and addressed an international Congress of Black Writers in Montreal, before moving to the US and joining up with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in New York campaigning for community control of schools in Harlem. Howe had returned to Trinidad just in time for the eruption of the short-lived Black Power revolt and army mutiny against Eric Williams’s post-colonial authoritarian regime in 1970. But it was Howe’s creative application of international black revolutionary perspectives, strategies and tactics to the distinctly unrevolutionary conditions of post-war Britain that were to see him make his most important and original contributions.
A high watermark in the British Black Power movement was the militant protest Howe organised in 1970 against police harassment at the West Indian Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill. When this was met with a violent police response and many arrests on trumped up charges of riot and affray, Howe and Althea Jones-Lecointe organised their own defence alongside other members of the “Mangrove Nine” in a successful ten-week political trial in late 1971. It led to the first official judicial acknowledgement of racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police.
What was particularly striking was how the victory of the Mangrove Nine owed much to Howe and Jones-Lecointe’s understanding of the specificities of the intrinsic interrelationship of race and class in the British context. As Howe recalled in an interview with Ken Lawrence in 1980, once their appeal for an all-black jury was denied:
“We then asked for a list of jurors and chose those from the white working class. Anyone with any pretence to Marxism knows that the working class at some point in its development had to feel the sharpness of police oppression in order that they be moulded into obedient producers for capitalism… We appealed to them as working class folk as ourselves, sure in the belief — some of us weren’t so sure — in the general belief that if there was any section of the population who could deliver us out of the mess in which we found ourselves, it would be white workers. And they did. Some of them began the trial as racists. At the end of it, when I was making my closing speech — I defended myself — one of the white women wept as I spoke, you know. So one knew it was possible to move white workers in support.”
In 1973 Howe became editor of the campaigning journal Race Today alongside Leila Hassan (his future partner), and helped form the Race Today Collective, a distinctively “Jamesian” group which became one of the key organising centres of the black liberation struggle in Britain. They first worked alongside and then somewhat separately from A Sivanandan’s Institute of Race Relations and later co-sponsored the International Book Fair of Radical, Black and Third World Books.
In 1981 Howe, with other key activists including John La Rose, helped organise a defiant “Black People’s Day of Action” involving a march of perhaps 25,000 people in anger at police inaction after 13 young black people were killed in the New Cross fire, initially thought to be the work of racists. Their militant slogans included, “Come What May, We Are Here to Stay”.
The limitations of the Race Today Collective’s politics lay in its failure to seriously try to build a mass multiracial organisation that could effectively relate to industrial struggle in multiracial workplaces as well as the struggles on the streets and in the law courts. Howe nonetheless always saw the importance of black radicals not writing off the potential power of the “white working class”. For Howe, this perspective was more than vindicated by the solidarity shown by the likes of the Yorkshire miners (if not the official TUC leadership) during the Grunwick strike by mainly Asian women workers.
Also crucial to this belief was the success of mass anti-racist and anti-fascist mobilisation from below in helping block the rise of the Nazi National Front in the late 1970s. Howe would become a supporter of the Anti Nazi League, which was set up in the aftermath of the Battle of Lewisham in August 1977. He later paid a characteristically eloquent tribute to its work in turning the tide of racism in Britain at a meeting held to remember the revolutionary socialist doctor David Widgery.
The final words might go to Widgery himself, who in Some Lives! left us an unforgettable image of Darcus Howe at his very best: “in August 1977 up a lamp post in New Cross, manoeuvring crowds of demonstrators to block the National Front’s unwelcome passage as if he was setting a Lords outfield, and prowling over the stage at the old Naz cinema in Brick Lane denouncing the bishops and instructing the Bangladeshi kids, who couldn’t follow his patois, ‘to mek stand’ for themselves.”