Is Black History Month necessary?

Published: 20 October 2022

October marks Black History Month in the UK. The UK version of this event was first celebrated in 1987.

People from African and Caribbean backgrounds have been a fundamental part of British history for centuries. However, campaigners believe their value and contribution to society is often overlooked, ignored or distorted.

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, a Ghanian activist and Special Projects Coordinator for the Greater London Council, was instrumental in bringing Black History Month to the UK.

Today, Black History month is not only a time to recognise achievements but also to consider where prejudice and ignorance has led to failures, and the resistance and change these have brought about.

In April 1981, the Metropolitan Police began “Operation Swamp 81” in the London Borough of Lambeth focused on the Brixton area.  The naming of the operation was reminiscent of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s assertion in 1978 that the UK “might be swamped by people of a different culture”. Plain clothed and uniformed Officers from outside the area, along with the Special Patrol Group, were dispatched in significant numbers to use a range of powers, including those under the Vagrancy Act 1824 which allowed the search and arrest of persons who were deemed to be acting “suspiciously”. Within five days, 943 people were stopped and searched and 82 arrested. In addition, powers under the Licensing Act were used to enter without warrant a succession of residential premises supposedly to identify the unlicensed sale of alcohol.

As a consequence, already fractured relations with the police became more strained, which resulted in a crowd acting to intervene when a stabbing victim appeared to be being arrested. Operation Swamp 81 continued with an increase in foot patrols that night and the following morning. The next day, despite local people’s attempts to de-escalate, outbreaks of fighting took place between residents and the police. Matters escalated with over 1000 police being sent to the area and the use of petrol bombs by some residents.

In his landmark report, The Brixton Disorders 10-12 April 1981, Lord Scarman identified that the police had to carry some responsibility for the outbreak of disorder. He added, “Firstly, they were partly to blame for the breakdown in community relation. Secondly there were instances of harassment and racial prejudice among junior officers on the streets of Brixton which gave credibility and substance to the arguments of the police’s critics. Thirdly, there was the failure to adjust policies and methods to meet the needs of policing a multi-cultural society.” The disorder was described as, “an unpremeditated outburst of anger and resentment against the police in a context of social and economic deprivation.” Partly as a result of the report, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was introduced, and a community policing model adopted. However, the 1999 McPherson report into the investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder found that there had been a continued failure to implement many of the recommendations of the earlier report and that rather than there being problems with individual officers, the police service was deemed “institutionally racist”.