Above Photo: Linton Kwesi Johnson and Darcus Howe at the Race Today office on Railton Road, Brixton, 1979. Adrian Boot / urbanimage.tv.
In the 1970s and 80s, the Race Today Collective used journalism and direct action to spearhead an era of anti-racist campaigning in Britain, culminating in an iconic march.
In 1974, former Black Panther Darcus Howe became editor of Race Today, transforming it from a formal academic journal, run by the institute of Race Relations, into a campaigning collective whose activities extended far beyond journalism.
Race Today morphed into the Race Today Collective, forging a holistic approach to activism that weaponised journalism as a powerful campaigning tool. This symbiosis, coupled with the Collective’s consistently global and intersectional outlook, pioneered a new form of anti-racist campaigning as well as a new era of radical journalism, reaching a pinnacle in 1981 with the Black People’s Day of Action.
Darcus Howe’s Race Today emerged directly out of the British Black Power movement. Members of the Collective Farrukh Dhondy, Leila Hassan, Mala Sen, and Jean Ambrose had all been part of Black Power groups, from the Black Panther Party to the Black Unity and Freedom Party. Several had been involved in the notorious Mangrove Nine Trials, including Barbara Beese and Howe himself. As Hassan proclaimed, ‘black British identity was forged in Black Power.’
But the Collective reﬁned their unique blend of journalism and activism in opposition to the failures of British Black Power. Howe presented Race Today as a progressive departure from Black Power groups as he declared that the Collective would be governed exclusively by black working-class people without interference from a patronising white middle class. In addition, the Collective rejected the abstruse jargon and rhetoric of previous Black Power publications, attracting a wider range of readers and allowing the magazine to steer debates in the mainstream media on issues of race and class. Howe nurtured a sensitive awareness of black experience in Britain, speciﬁcally underlining the importance of understanding ‘who we are, what we came here for’ as New Commonwealth immigrants.
Dhondy asserted that everything Race Today wrote had ‘some root in doing something’. The Collective ﬁrst realised their power as a campaigning group during the Asian workers’ strike at Leicester’s Imperial Typewriters Factory in 1974. As the workers received no support from the unions, the Collective intervened as a grassroots union of sorts by listening to the grievances of the strikers and providing the support they needed in order to launch a successful campaign.
In a piece on the strike in Race Today, Mala Sen unveiled the racial discrimination faced by the workers by giving them an autonomous voice to express their concerns. One woman revealed: ‘none of us have ever got a promotion, but the white women get the better jobs.’ By providing the strikers with a platform from which to describe injustice in the workplace, as well as giving them practical advice and resources, Race Today demonstrated their dynamic approach to journalism and activism. Looking back, Howe declared that the Imperial Typewriters campaign was ‘one of the most powerful strikes of the time‘, highlighting the valuable lessons that can be learned from the Collective’s canny amalgam of words and action.
This initial success in 1974 transformed the Collective into one of the most impressive anti-racist campaigning organs in the UK, though it was their journalism that remained their most important weapon. In 1976, members of the Collective attended the Grunwick Strike at a ﬁlm processing lab in Willesden. Dhondy and Hassan spoke to the strikers in order to write reports that would act as a counterbalance to mainstream coverage, attempting to relate both to the strikers by conversing with them in Gujarati and to union leaders such as Arthur Scargill. The Collective’s frontline reporting on Grunwick proved invaluable, as the Asian women leading the strike were caricatured by the press for wearing saris. Conversely, Race Today’s coverage helped dispel the myth that South Asian women were docile and domestic.
One of the Collective’s greatest but lesser-known achievements was their role in creating a housing squat for Bengali families in the East End of London during the late 1970s. In collaboration with the Bengali Housing Action Group, Race Today found empty houses for families who could not stay in their homes for fear of racial attack, resulting in the development of the largest contemporary housing squat in Europe. The Collective found the families legal representation, provided them with information about the speciﬁcities of squatting laws, and acted as intermediaries between the local council, the unions, and the London Hospital from which the squatters were obtaining their electricity.
Alongside their practical eﬀort, Race Today covered the project relentlessly in the magazine. Once again, this saw the Collective utilising their signature two-pronged strategy, using journalism to humanise black and Asian citizens while pooling their resources and expertise to support practical campaigns.
Most famously, the Race Today Collective were the chief group responsible for organising the Black People’s Day of Action in March 1981 – the largest demonstration of black people in the UK at the time, recently explored by Steve McQueen in his docuseries Uprising and captured by the late Menelik Shabazz in his landmark ﬁlm Blood Ah Goh Run (now showing at the ICA as part of the exhibition War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights).
Fuelled by rage and grief after the New Cross Fire in January 1981, several groups, with the Collective at the forefront, began to mobilise in order to demand justice. The New Cross Massacre Action Committee (NCMAC) was established with Howe and John La Rose as its leaders, though the group was initially riddled with internal division. The Collective preserved the unity of these eclectic organisations which contained within them ‘the whole spectrum of black ideological tendencies‘, according to poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. When Pan-Africanists called for white people to be excluded from the campaign, Race Today ensured inclusivity and openness. When there were calls for bloody revenge, Race Today advocated peaceful protest.
The Black People’s Day of Action soon took place on 2 March 1981 and saw approximately 20,000 people march across London. Johnson remembers it as ‘the most powerful expression of black political power‘ ever achieved in the UK, while Hassan recalls a great feeling of political euphoria. Alongside their practical acuity, Race Today’s political awareness meant they understood how to use symbolism. They decided that the march would take place on a Monday as it would force employers to take notice; demonstrating on a Saturday would cause less disruption than a weekday as few people would be walking out of work, while Thursday was an important pay-day that many could not aﬀord to miss.
Particularly symbolic was the protest route decided by Race Today as it weaved through the institutional seats of power and press. The march began in New Cross at the site of the ﬁre, continued to Fleet Street and Westminster, and ended at Hyde Park Corner – ‘the anointed place of free speech’ for minorities in London, according to writer Ambalavaner Sivanandan.
The march was covered by the mainstream press with hostility and inaccuracy, forcing Race Today to deploy their journalism as a political instrument. The day after the demonstration, the Times published a report of the event that ﬁxated on the violence caused by a small minority of protestors and the number of policemen injured as a result. It hardly described the context of the demonstration, with a mere one line about the New Cross Fire, instead diverting attention to mundane details such as the disruption of traﬃc.
The task fell upon Race Today to negate this damning and evasive portrayal. In 1982, Howe wrote an important editorial to methodically explain the development of the mass movement. Unlike the Times‘ report, it outlined the deep-rooted reasons for the march, illustrating the Black People’s Day of Action as a product of longstanding racism, catalysed by the devastation of the New Cross Fire. A few years later, Johnson wrote a piece reflecting on the march and the lack of subsequent action taken by the establishment. Johnson exposed the cronyism of Fleet Street and denounced the media’s ‘shameful campaign of disinformation, lies and innuendos’. This journalistic counterattack was evidence of Race Today’s mission to document the complex issues aﬀecting black people in Britain and to counter their malign misrepresentation in the media.
The Black People’s Day of Action saw the Collective at the height of their campaigning powers, employing the dual strategy they had been reﬁning since the early 1970s. They used journalism to create an alternative frame that aimed to dignify and humanise black people whilst also deploying their practical skills to launch a formidable show of black political power.
Howe and his fellow campaigners saw Race Today as more than just a publication. Starting out with an academic journal, they developed into an impressive campaigning group and produced a popular magazine that published intelligent political analysis on race, class, and gender that could not be found elsewhere. The story of Race Today shows us the radical potential of using journalism alongside activism, providing us with an organisational blueprint that could be put to vital use today.