The legacy of Darcus Howe

Issue section: 
(459)

Darcus Howe was a towering figure both in Britain and internationally. Possessed of a sonorous voice and sharp intellect, he edited the journal Race Today and remained deeply committed to race equality and social justice right up until his death in 2018. The Mangrove Nine Case that he was centrally involved in features in the forthcoming BBC series Small Axe, directed by Oscar winner Steve McQueen. Socialist Review spoke to Leila Hassan, who succeeded Darcus as Race Today’s editor in 1985, and writer and broadcaster Farrukh Dhondy, about the work of the Race Today Collective and what the Darcus Howe Legacy initiative can offer the movements of today.

SR: What are the origins of Race Today?
Race Today began as the house journal of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) and had been edited Peter Watson. The IRR was originally funded by companies such as Booker Brother and Lonrho, which had investments in former colonial territories. After a “palace revolution” its council was replaced by more liberal and radical people. The Rev Kirby became editor under the organisation of Towards Racial Justice and funded by the World Council of Churches.
Ambalavanar Sivandan became the head of the IRR. Within the IRR there was a discussion which concluded that in order to be relevant Race Today needed a black editor. Several names were discussed and it became clear that two key council members, John La Rose publisher and bookstore owner and Wilfred Wood (Bishop of Croydon) favoured Darcus Howe.
By that time, Darcus already had an international radical reputation. He had been one of defendants who successfully defended himself against trumped up charges, including incitement to riot, in the renowned 1970 trial of the Mangrove Nine.
Immediately after the trial he joined the Black Panther Movement (BPM). He was extremely active in the radical politics and assumed an unacknowledged leadership role in the movement.
He was instrumental in making the assessment that the BPM had outlived its radical stance. It had begun to turn in on itself with useless faction fighting, so Darcus and others quit the movement. They were in the process of formulating another radical black organisation when the invitation to apply for the Race Today editorship came.
When he was approached Darcus stated that he would only attend an interview if he was assured he would get the job! Leila was on the interview panel and Darcus was subsequently appointed. Darcus immediately began to reframe its activity from being a publishing platform to that of a radical, active force for change.
In the first few issues, he invited his political associates to write seminal articles from their ideological viewpoint and experience. These included Selma James’s Sex, Race and Class and Farrukh Dhondy’s Black Explosion in British Schools. Darcus also wrote to all his international contacts in the US, Canada, Caribbean and Africa, and asked them to contribute.
At that point the Race Today Collective was a group of people around the magazine, but had not yet been formally constituted. Darcus’s central influence was that of his uncle CLR James, the radical and most forward looking Marxist of our times who had put forward the theory and practice of a small organisation around a magazine.

SR How and when did the publication move to Brixton?
Darcus felt his independence was being compromised in the IRR, and he had ideological disagreements with Sivandan, who still thought of the immigrant community as victims. These disagreements resulted in Darcus and his associates wanting to both physically and ideologically distance themselves from the IRR, which they saw as a theoretical talking shop.
In association with several others in something reminiscent of a movie heist, a beat up old post office van drove up to the IRR’s Kings’ Cross offices at midnight, emptied the Race Today office of all its machinery and records and transported them to a squat in Railton Road, Brixton. From this squat they moved to another squat in Mayall Road then to 74 Shakespeare Road, and broke through the partition wall to combine offices with 165 Railton Road.
At this time there was a large squatting movement in Brixton led by Olive Morris. A few months later, the loose collective was formally constituted as the Race Today Collective. SR: Here Today, Here to Fight — The Race Today Anthology commemorates some of the work of the Race Today Collective up until its dissolution in 1988.

SR: Why did you decide to publish it?
The idea for the book came out of discussions on projects to commemorate the legacy of Darcus. We and other members of the Darcus Howe Legacy Collective decided that it was important to bring the work of the Race Today Collective to a wider audience. The Collective was active in various fields of politics, economics and culture. We felt these needed to be equally represented as the initial monument to the work that had gone into generating the political and cultural events that the magazine then reported on.

SR: From Bobby to Babylon charts the changing relationship between Britain’s black communities and the police. The title encapsulates a dramatic change in perceptions of the police. From the 1950s onwards, the popular image of the police was that of the friendly ‘Bobby’. By the time Darcus came to write the series of articles in the book, would you agree that the harsh realities that he documented meant Britain’s black communities regarded the police differently?
Through the 70s and 80s the articles which make up From Bobby To Babylon were a singular voice campaigning against the treatment of blacks by the police.
‘Babylon’ was a word widely used by the increasingly influential and growing population of Rastafarians and adopted by black youth to classify their oppressors. The articles were instant reflections of the vast injustice that was being perpetrated by an arm of the state on a community that was determined to resist such discrimination
In 1985, the events on Broadwater Farm in Haringey, north London, brought into focus the antagonism between black youth and the police. There was an intense debate in the country about these events, and Race Today decided to inform its history by publishing the past articles. In 1987 it became clear that an intervention in this debate and the history of resistance should be collected and published.
SR: It has been republished at a time when the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has sparked the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, along with intense debate on how the police could be defunded and reformed. What is your view of this?
The recent demonstrations with millions of people protesting against the institutional racism of countries such as the US and Britain have cast light on the fact that very little has changed. In Britain there have been three reports and inquiries on the institutional racism of the police.
First was Scarman in 1982, a report that Darcus rips to shreds in ‘Failing To Grasp the Nettle’, one of the articles in From Bobby To Babylon. Then came Macpherson’s report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1999 and most recently, David Lammy’s review of the wider criminal justice system in 2017. Nothing has been done. It is extremely relevant to build a response at this moment to this injustice with an informed resume of its history.
From Bobby To Babylon published at this time is an intervention that outlines the history from those who were part of the previous fight against police oppression, and who recorded it. SR: What can it teach the new generation?
Neither Here to Stay, Here To Fight nor From Bobby To Babylon are instructional in their aim. They are both campaigning, historical documents. If the campaigns and the stance that the articles take can inform or inspire those who will inevitably take the fight forward through their own experience or their radical commitment, then the publications will have found their use.