This browser is not fully supported by Historic England. Please update your browser to the latest version so that you get the best from our website.

Racism and Resistance

Imperial European powers found ways to justify the barbaric slave system and the invasion, colonisation and expropriation of foreign lands for the expansion of their wealth.

African head carved in stone on Cunard Building, Liverpool. Colour photo taken 2007.
African head, Cunard Building, Liverpool. Photo taken 2007 © Historic England DP034129

Britain amongst them created a hierarchy with white Europeans at the top and Africans and Asians at the bottom. Racism became embedded into the nation's structures of power, culture, education and identity.

People from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia were encouraged by government to come to England. But on arrival here they often faced racism and discrimination, which was not illegal in Britain until 1965.

Woman and sneering man, at a London market. Black and white photo taken 1946-59.
Woman and sneering man, at an unidentified market in North London. Photo taken by John Gay 1946-59 © Historic England AA054028

Racist attacks

In 1919, there were large-scale racist attacks on 'coloured' communities in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Hull, South Shields as well as parts of Scotland and Wales. There were other large-scale attacks in Liverpool in 1948, in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958 and at other times and places throughout the century since 1918.

One of the most well-known racist murders is that of teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. There have been many murders in the past, including, Akhtar Ali Baig in East Ham in 1980. Kelso Cochrane was also murdered in Notting Hill in 1959 and Charles Wootton, in Liverpool in 1919.

Racist practices, policies and politics

Although migrant workers have been vital for the growth of Britain's economy and public services, racism has sometimes been widespread. There was the 'colour bar' that prevented 'coloured' people obtaining jobs and accommodation, fighting for British boxing titles or even joining the armed services or serving as officers in them. Some laws were openly racist too, such as the 1925 Coloured Alien Seamen's Order or the 1981 British Nationality Act.

There have been openly racist speeches by leading politicians too. Seeking to create divisions and stir up racism Enoch Powell's infamous 'Rivers of Blood' tirade in 1968 is a well-known example. And then there are the activities of politically racist organisations such as the National Front.

Resistance, protest and defence

In response those of African, Caribbean and Asian descent have been forced to find various forms of resistance alongside allies. They organised political actions or demonstrations such as the Grumwick Strike in 1976 and the Black People's Day of Action in 1981 in London. There were various protests against police and racist violence in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sometimes it meant forming defence organisations such as the League of Coloured Peoples and the first Indian Workers' Association established in the 1930s, or the Black People's Alliance in the 1970s.

General view of a crowd at speakers corner in Hyde Park, with a young black man on the platform with arm outstretched to the sky.  'london observed' negatives hyde park speakers corner greater london city of westminster paddington bayswater and knightsbridge
A young man at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London. 1962-64 © Historic England, photographed by John Gay AA054025

At other times, communities responded by establishing places of refuge and sanctuary. There was the widespread supplementary school movement often favoured in Caribbean communities. There were also centres such as Africa House in Camden in the 1930s, or cultural centres, such as the Drum in Birmingham in the 1990s.

Was this page helpful?

Also of interest...