Wednesday 28 October 2009
By Lizzie Cocker
This picture from 1973 shows Olive confronting a rather overwhelmed
property agent Mr Defries, in defence of a squatted building, more info here
property agent Mr Defries, in defence of a squatted building, more info here
In an age when xenophobia and Islamophobia are being stoked
by illegal wars and immigration myths, the need to wrench
hidden realities from history in order to see today's
truths has never been more urgent.
And thanks to the Remembering Olive Collective (ROC)
founded by artist Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre in 2007, a
bit of this history became available to the public last
week at the Lambeth Archives in Brixton, south London.
Olive Morris, despite her awe-inspiring short life, remains
virtually unknown. And she is one of the greatest unsung
heroes I have ever come across.
My encounter with Morris began when a friend switched on my
radar for forgotten female protagonists. He mentioned a
local project he was doing on four practically unheard-of
women activists who left in their wake cultural, social and
political improvements which are enjoyed not just in London
but in some instances internationally.
Three of these women were black.
With my radar on standby, I stumbled across a website which
asked me if I "remember Olive Morris?" above a picture of a
young black woman smiling with her shades on behind a
No, I thought. I had never heard of Olive Morris.
And as I investigated further it became apparent that my
ignorance was widespread.
Morris died aged just 27 in the 1970s. But she had such an
unshakeable impact on those who knew her that many of the
people with memories, documents, photographs and letters
relating to this young woman responded to ROC's calls to
make her story a matter of public record.
As a tireless campaigner for black women, a socialist and
an internationalist, Morris dedicated herself to fighting
injustice wherever she saw it.
One of the most vivid examples was in 1969 when police
arrested a Nigerian diplomat in Brixton as he stepped out
of his Mercedes.
The police were so stunned to see a black man with such a
flashy car that their reflex was to treat him as a criminal
who had stolen it.
Crowds gathered round gaping as the police began to beat
A 17-year-old Olive struggled through the spectators and
physically tried to stop the attack.
She was flung down and subjected to black police boots
kicking her in her breasts. She was stripped naked and told
as the blows kept on coming: "This is the right colour for
One Nigerian student wrote in tribute to her upon her
death: "It is reasonable to expect that Olive Morris's
heroism will be immortalised alongside such black
luminaries like Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and many others
who were proud to be black."
But despite this ROC found while putting the jigsaw of her
life story together that this woman remained only in the
memories of those whose lives had crossed hers.
So vivid were the memories that these pieces of the jigsaw
have now found an eternal home in the archives.
As I hungrily sifted through them trying to complete my own
puzzle, it was Morris's typewritten words that climbed out
of the papers desperate to deliver the answers for problems
we continue to face today.
A graduate in social sciences from Manchester University,
Morris wrote numerous essays on Marxism, race and class. As
a Brixton Black Panther, part and parcel of her membership
was to attend lessons in Leninism and Marxism.
This education and her own activism influenced her
relationship with progressive movements and she ultimately
became frustrated with the British left, which she
described as having "more in common with the ruling class
and royalty than with fellow workers.
"Today increasingly the British working class is faced with
a choice either to defend the 'national interest' or throw
their lot in with the oppressed people of the Third World.
"The most immediate way in which this can be done is for
them to support the struggle of the Third World people in
this country," she argued.
Morris sympathised with Trinidadian activist Claudia Jones
who was poorly treated by the Communist Party, which failed
to acknowledge her far-reaching capabilities and consigned
her to an administrative role, and Grunwick striker Jayaben
Desai who was virtually abandoned by trade unions.
She became disillusioned by institutions for the working
class, which instinctively she would have had the most
natural allegiance with.
"We have used the great British tradition of trade unionism
to try and further our cause for equality and justice, but
on countless occasions we have found that the movement does
one thing for white workers and another for black workers,"
"White workers have time and time again refused to give our
unions recognition, they have crossed our picket lines for
racist reasons, they have organised against our
organisation in the trade unions.
"Take for instance STC (Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd)
where white trade unionists and union officials - with
exception of a few - put skin colour before the overall
interest of the proletariat and often resorted to physical
violence against their black fellow workers."
Morris was exasperated by what she saw as an inherent
self-interest that blocked mainly white apparently
progressive groups from seeing where the real battles
needed to be fought. She lambasted the Anti Nazi League
"trendies" for busying themselves with "shouting their
empty phrase of 'black and white unite and fight'."
Empty, she said, "because there was no sound basis on which
such unity could be built."
The ANL, she continued, has "become one big carnival
jamboree of political confusion for the middle class.
"It doesn't raise the political questions. It buries them
in the name of 'broadness'."
Morris highlighted that the National Front, which the ANL
directed all its enthusiasm into fighting, was merely a
symptom and not a cause of the racist ideologies and
practices which prevailed in every sector of society.
As the black groups Morris worked with organised to fight
oppression on all levels - running supplementary schools,
clubs and recreational facilities, clubbing together to buy
houses, striking, organising pickets and circulating
petitions - she urged people truly dedicated to fighting
racism to confront the issues which affect black people's
lives on a daily basis in schools, the police, local
government and even trade unions.
"Not a single problem associated with racialism,
unemployment, police violence and homelessness can be
settled by 'rocking' against the fascists, the police or
the army," she said.
"The fight against racism and fascism is completely bound
up with the fight to overthrow capitalism, the system that
The symptomatic BNP and other far-right organisations are
rearing their ugly heads above the fertile ground laid by a
political framework which has perpetuated the
criminalisation, social immobility and isolation of black
and ethnic minorities.
But black history has a lesson for the left.
As long as support is only forthcoming when racism is so
visible that it can no longer be ignored rather than being
part of the daily battles against all discrimination that
permeates society, the struggle to create equal conditions
for everyone will keep taking one step forward and 10 steps
To get a glimpse into the rest of Olive's life visit
rememberolivemorris.wordpress.com or visit the
collection at the Lambeth Archives in the Minet Library,
52 Knatchbull Road, London SE5 9QY
Olive Elaine Morris
Born in 1952 in Jamaica and moved with her family to
Britain aged nine
Died of cancer in 1979
Travelled to China, north Africa, Ireland and Spain
A council building in Lambeth bears her name
Groups she cofounded or worked with:
The Black Panther Movement (later the Black Workers Group),
Brixton Black Women's Group
The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent
Manchester Black Womens Co-operative
National Co-ordinating Committee of Overseas Students
Black Womens Mutual Aid Group
Brixton Law Centre
The squatter movement