Olive Morris – British Black Panther
The policing bill making its way through parliament at the moment is set to bring about some radical changes to what many of us regard as one of our most basic freedoms – the right to peaceful protest. For anyone who has ever cared enough about an issue to go on a demo – this is a really big deal, and especially so in a city with such a long and rich history of protest … which brings me to Olive Morris, the trailblazing South London anti-racist, feminist activist.
I was re-acquainted with Olive Morris (26 June 1952 – 12 July 1979) about a year ago when I saw Greg Bunbury’s stunning poster (above) for Black Outdoor Art, outside my local underground station – a poster that truly captures the essence of this incredible force of a woman, who, in her short 27-year life, accomplished so much – leaving behind an extraordinary legacy of local activism and inspiration.
She arrived in the UK, age 9, from Jamaica to join her family, at a time, in the 1960’s and 70’s, when African, Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities faced discrimination in every aspect of their lives, amidst increased tension with the police and a rise of the far right. Morris was 17 the first time she was attacked and arrested by the police, for defending a Nigerian diplomat who was falsely being questioned under the sus-law[i]. Incidents like these were the norm back then – think the Mangrove Nine – captured brilliantly in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series.
It wasn’t long after – in the late 60’s - that Morris became an active member of the British Black Panther Movement along with Linton Kwesi Johnson, Clovis Reid, Farrukh Dhondy, Althea Johnson, Darcus Howe and Neil Kenlock. After the Panthers disbanded (1972), she founded Brixton Black Women’s Group with Liz Obi and Beverley Bryan - focussing her energy on issues affecting Black women, including immigration and reproductive justice. She was an intersectional feminist before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the word. She understood that women do not live single issue lives – and that Black women and women of colour, in particular, face multiple forms of discrimination that affect every aspect of their lives from access to healthcare to education, housing and more.
Morris and Obi campaigned for squatters’ rights – providing a practical solution to acute homelessness, in a city full of empty houses. In 1973, they opened the 121 Railton Road squat in Brixton, which became an influential hub of political activism and organising centre for community groups, such as Black People against State Harassment. It later housed the Sabarr Bookshop, one of the first Black bookshops. 121 Railton Road remained open as a community centre until 1999.
She studied Economics and Social Sciences in Manchester, where she campaigned for the abolition of overseas student fees and organised with the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group. In 1978, she came back to London and founded Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD), with a group of women, including Stella Dadzie. They provided an opportunity for Black women with a safe space to meet, held conferences, supported women on strike, and organised sit-ins, at Heathrow Airport, against the outrageous virginity tests practised on Asian women to check their residency and marriage claim.
Morris travelled extensively, including to Jamaica and across Europe. After her trip to China, she wrote ‘A sisters’ visit to China’ – a study of the country’s role in anti-imperialist struggles, which was published Black Women’s Group newsletter, Speak Out!. It was on a trip to Spain in 1978 that she fell ill. She was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 1979. Her premature death left a huge hole.
“Listening to the recollections of the people who knew her and reading through the newspaper clippings, essays written by her at Manchester University, photographs of her at family gatherings, protests, travelling through China, on cycling holidays with her boyfriend produced details that fleshed out her human dimensions. She was funny and charismatic. She was nice. She loved dancing. She liked looking good, and having a good time. She was very serious about her activism, about creating a better world for working class people”. Dr Angelina Osborne
In 2008, her friend Liz Obi founded the remembering Olive Morris collective to celebrate this extraordinary woman, her life and passion, and the countless contributions she made towards a more just and equitable society. Her legacy continues to resonate and inspire - and sadly remains more vital than ever. Also check out the short film by Alex Kayode-Kay, The Ballad of Olive Morris.
[i] The 'sus law' was a ‘stop and search’ law that permitted a police officer to stop, search and potentially arrest people on suspicion of them being in breach of section 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act.