Bristol Bus Boycott
Bristol Bus Boycott

Fifty years after the epic “March on Washington” placed civil rights and racial discrimination on top of the national agenda in the United States, a similar, but much smaller and largely forgotten, event took place at the same time 3,600 miles away in Bristol, England.

In 1963, as Britons began facing the reality of large numbers of non-white immigrants from the former colonies of the Empire living amongst them, rejection and opposition to these blacks and Asian people took many forms. In the southwestern English city of Bristol, for example, ethnic minorities had been ‘unofficially’ banned from working as city bus drivers and conductors, in addition to restrictions on where they could live, shop and go to school.

BBC reported on the experiences of a black man from Jamaica named Guy Bailey who, as an 18-year-old in April 1963, applied for a job with the state-owned Bristol Omnibus Company and was summarily rejected, despite a newspaper advertisement that boasted of plentiful available jobs at the firm. "There's no point having an interview," the [white] manager told young Bailey. "We don't employ black people." But, at the time such open discrimination was legal in many parts of the United Kingdom – even the trade unions representing bus employees supported this prejudicial policy.

Ironically, the post-war labor shortage in the Britain had encouraged the mass migration of peoples from the Caribbean and South Asia to toil in various jobs in the “Mother Country,” particularly in the National Health Service and London Transport. As such, Bristol’s outright prohibition on non-white bus drivers was something of an anomaly, given the common sight of black and Asian bus employees and conductors in cities like London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester.

Bailey was one of about 3,000 blacks from the Caribbean who had settled in Bristol since 1948, with full rights granted by British citizenship. But due to rampant discrimination and fear of violence, blacks in Bristol concentrated in the deprived St. Paul’s neighborhood. Blacks were often the target of attacks on the streets by white hooligans and were banned from entering certain pubs, restaurants and shops. Nonetheless, Bailey’s confrontation with such raw, naked bigotry triggered a campaign against the bus company by both the local Afro-Caribbean community and some white activists.

They decided to boycott the city’s buses – in a somewhat similar vein to the famous 1955-1956 Rosa Parks-inspired bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama led by Martin Luther King. A group of black residents of St. Paul’s formed an organization called the West Indian Development Council, which included a mixed-race, British-born civil rights activist named Paul Stephenson, who was explicitly inspired by the Montgomery bus boycott that ultimately changed the laws in Alabama.

As early as 1962, the local paper in Bristol published a series of articles delineating the “color bar” practiced by the bus company. The general manager of Bristol Omnibus, Ian Patey, told the paper that his company employed a number of non-whites, but mostly in the garages where the public would never see them. Patey later told a city government committee that his white employees would not accept black colleagues and would likely resign en masse. They also feared that a wider labor pool would erode their already meager incomes. Also, given the fact that many bus conductors were (white) females, there were fears that the presence of black bus drivers would cause great discomfort to the lady employees.

"The ordinary workers took their cue from the Bristol Omnibus Company," Stephenson noted. "The unions were more concerned about their economic situation. They thought the black workers were [of] lower status and would bring about wage decreases -- it was economic racism. Some of them were racist - they didn't want to work with black people. But it was the management, it was the [Bristol] city council that was ultimately responsible."

Stephenson, outraged by the unjust rejection of Bailey’s job application, called for a boycott of the bus service. The local newspaper supported his campaign, as did university students, some trade union members and even ordinary white citizens. A Bristol Labour MP named Tony Benn also joined the boycott, as did the future Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The media compared the situation with Bristol’s buses with the widespread segregation in the American South, thereby causing great embarrassment to local officials.

In Bristol, as in Montgomery, the boycott worked – by September 1963, Bristol buses finally hired black and Asian drivers. Ironically, on Aug 28, 1963, the very same day as the March on Washington, Patey announced that Bristol Omnibus would integrate its workforce. (However, some white bus employees did indeed quit their jobs in protest as he had predicted). The very first non-white bus conductor in Bristol was Raghbir Singh, an Indian-born Sikh.

The success of the bristol boycott might have been more extraoridanry than the Montgomery boycott from a few years prior, given that blacks represented such a small portion of Bristol's overall population. Indeed, the bus company did not necessarily even need black passengers to run smoothly -- in stark contrast to Montgomery which relied heavily on black customers.

The Bristol campaign also likely played a role in the first laws enacted in Britain to outlaw racial discrimination, namely the Race Relations Act of 1966 which prohibited discrimination on the "grounds of color, race, or ethnic or national origins" in public places. By 1968, the law was expanded to include housing and employment. provisions.