Collage by Exposure using portrait of Malcolm X by Ed Ford, portrait of Martin Luther King from Nobel Foundation, World Telegram staff photographer, image of Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst (unknown author), and image of Rosa Parks from United Press
Shakira Dyer goes online to explore some of London’s struggles for positive change
Journey to Justice is a charity promoting social justice movements through time, allowing people to learn more about the context in which people, past and present, decided to create change, and how they empowered themselves against discrimination.
Journey to Justice runs a series of websites such as Economic [In]Justice but its newest website, JtoJ Human Rights allows users to explore protest and rights movements in the UK and the US online.
I decided to focus on movements that had happened in various areas of London.
Asquith Xavier – black people’s right to work
Under Newham, I read about Asquith Xavier, a Caribbean-born British train guard, a member of the Windrush generation who applied for a promotion, moving from Marylebone train station to Euston.
Although the Race Relations Act had been passed in 1965, banning discrimination in British workplaces, the staff union created an ‘informal colour bar’ telling him not to work there.
Facing racial discrimination, Asquith Xavier had to get police protection just to get his job and fought for five months afterwards. He received hate mail and even death threats, affecting his mental health.
There were still racist attitudes, and some people (like the National Union of Railwaymen in Euston at the time) didn’t want black workers to be in ‘public facing roles’.
Asquith Xavier received help from the local Jewish, Asian and Black communities, as well as his friend from his old Marylebone station who wrote about his story in the local paper, getting their local government to raise the issue. Asquith Xavier’s experience is one of the factors which led to the 1968 Race Relations Act which specifically outlawed discrimination in employment.
Eleanor Penn Gaskell – women’s right to vote
The right to work and the right to vote both allow people to take part in society.
Similar to how Xavier was prevented (by other workers) from doing his job, Eleanor Penn Gaskell was a suffragette in Brent who was barred (by the government) from voting.
She campaigned for women’s right to vote in the 1900s and was Secretary of the Willesden Branch of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage.
One way that Eleanor’s group protested was by ignoring the government census ‘as members of a disenfranchised sex [women] they object to give any particulars involving themselves’ to the government. Protesting by ignoring the census seemed like a modern way of protesting to me, so I was surprised it went this far back.
James Watson – working-class men’s right to vote
Before this, even working-class men had to fight for their suffrage – for instance James Watson in 19th century Islington.
A campaigner, publisher and Chartist (member of a movement for political reform for working-class people) he called for the equal rights of working-class men to vote, at a time when only 10% of all men (mostly the richest) had the vote and the right to become MPs.
He and other Chartists managed, despite being arrested, to extend the vote to 60% of all men in 1832.
Ken Saro-Wira – a community’s right to life
In Lambeth, in 1995 a memorial was erected to Ken Saro-Wira, a Nigerian environmental campaigner, playwright and actor.
He and others in MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) protested against the international oil companies who were polluting the Ogoni people’s land and the Niger delta. Saro-Wira described it as genocide against those who lived there, creating few vital jobs for young people and polluting the rivers for the fishing industries, while the oil companies profited from Nigeria’s natural resources.
He was executed by Nigeria’s military government in November 1995.
Yet Lambeth-based artist Sokari Douglas-Camp and Celestine AkopBari, from Social Action in Nigeria, attempted to revive his memory with a sculpture called the Battle Bus. This was a steel replica of the bus that the campaigners rode on, from London to Ogoniland, Nigeria, where he had lived. The sculpture has became a symbol for environmental protection and human rights.
More journeys to justice
The website has other extremely interesting entries too, like records of Malcolm X at Oxford University when he visited the UK in 1964.
I think Journey to Justice’s new Human Rights website is a great resource to learn about protest movements, past and present. Each page is short and well summarised, often with videos or podcasts to give a real understanding of what it might have been like to be there.
There’s not just London in here either – many cities in the UK and the USA are featured, as well as UK protests that were inspired by US civil rights movements.
There’s even a jukebox – as the last item in the main menu – of songs used in protest movements.
If you’re interested in protest movements, such as voting rights, anti-racism or environmental campaigns, and to read the stories of people who helped push for change, I would highly recommend it.
For more information, visit the Journey to Justice Human Rights online exhibition website and also read founder, Carrie Supple’s 2020 interview in Exposure by young journalist Tania Aubeelack.