The 1960s marked the decade in which majority of the African states achieved independence; 17 countries gained their independence in 1960 alone including Togo, Mali, Senegal, Zaire, Somalia, Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Congo. Jamaica became the first Caribbean island to gain their independence in 1962, closely followed by Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados.
This wave of self-governance gave new hope to the African American civil rights movement, which gathered strength during the 1960s. 1963 became a defining year for the movement with Martin Luther King Jr delivering his famous I have a dream speed on 28 August in Washington DC Earlier that year, president John F Kennedy had asked congress to issue laws guaranteeing citizens equal access to public services. In 1964, a campaign know as Freedom Summer was launched to attempt to register as many African-American voters as possible in Mississippi. A series of non-violent marches were organised from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama during 1965, with the Voting Rights Act being passed on 6 August of the same year.
At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze respectively for the 200-metre sprint. During their medal ceremony, they each raised a black gloved fist as the national anthem played, as a symbol of pride, Black Power and solidarity. Athletes Lee Evans, Larry James and Ron Freeman also raised their fists in an act of defiance whilst receiving medals the following day. Expelled from the Olympic village and suspended by the International Olympic Committee and American Federation, their gesture has become a defining image of the 1960s.
The 1960s was a decade of rapid change for Britain. The Race Relations Act 1965 was passed in Parliament, as the first legislation in the United Kingdom to address racial discrimination. The act outlawed discrimination on the “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins” in public places. Although the act was criticised for failing to address discrimination in employment, housing and advertising which were later address by the passing of the Race Relations Act 1968.
Although in law a step change had been made, in reality many Black British people continued to face discrimination on a daily basis. “No coloureds, no dogs, no Irish” were a common sight for people seeking accommodation and the rise of far-right National Front became a significant threat. In 1968, Conservative MP Enoch Powell delivered his “Rivers of Blood” speech in Birmingham encouraging repatriation of immigrants. Conversely, Enoch Powell as Health minister had previously welcomed Caribbean people to Britain to develop and build the NHS provided they “were temporary workers… who would then return to their native countries as qualified doctors or nurses.”
Inspired by the unaffiliated American party of the same name, the British Black Panther Party was founded in 1968 by Obi Egbuna, Darcus Howe, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Olive Morris. The party established the use of ‘Black’ as a political banner, with south Asian activists Farrukh Dhondy and Mala Sen also joining the party.
In the East Midlands, the 1960s were a very fertile and creative period for Black arts and culture. The De Montfort Hall hosted an array of Jazz legends, many brought to the UK by Leicestershire promoter Arthur Kimbrell in association with agent Harold Davison. Sarah Vaughan took to the stage on 31 January 1960, supported by Johnny Dankworth and his Orchestra. In November 1961 it was the turn of John Coltrane, although the reviewer from the Leicester Mercury might not have appreciated the experimental nature of Coltrane’s music suggesting it “didn’t make any too easy listening”. With Ella Fitzgerald performing as part of a nationwide tour of Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonia in February 1962, and Count Basie and his Orchestra performing in April 1962.
Jazz made way for the pioneers of rock and roll with Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix. In 1967, Jimi Hendrix played Leicester twice with a performance in February at Leicester Polytechnic’s Hawthorn Building (now De Montfort University) in what was described by Hendrix’s bass player Noel Redding as “a good gig with bad sound.” In April 1967, Jimi Hendrix played De Montfort Hall as a support act in a line up featuring Cat Stevens, Nick Jones, The Quotations and Engelbert Humperdinck.
In 1965, at Phoenix Theatre in Leicester, Guyanese actor, Cy Grant, played the lead in Othello. This was a pioneering performance in the history of Black British Theatre, as Grant became the first Black actor to play Othello since Paul Robeson.
These artists helped to pave the way for Black presence on British stages in the 1960s, recognised for their talent as the cultural contribution of African and African Caribbean communities began to define what it meant to be British in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Smith, T., Steele, D., (2007), Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith, 1st ed., Philadelphia: Temple University Press
About Cy. Available at: https://cygrant.com/about-cy-grant (Accessed on 29 July 2019)
Big Bands and Jazz: 1962. Available at: https://www.bradfordtimeline.co.uk/mindex62jazz.htm (Accessed on 29 July 2019)
Race Relations Act. Available at: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/collections1/race-relations-act-1965/race-relations-act-1965/ (Accessed on 29 July 2019)
Civil Rights Act of 1964. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/civil-rights-act (Accessed on 15 September 2019)