The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Roy Hackett, British civil rights pioneer, dies at 93

Roy Hackett in 2020. (Olumedia/Guardian/eyevine/Redux)
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Inspired in part by the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, Jamaican-born British activist Roy Hackett partnered with a few friends to organize their own civil rights campaign in 1963, taking on the racist policies of a local bus operator in Bristol, England.

The company refused to hire non-White drivers or fare collectors, a policy that became clear to Mr. Hackett when he saw a Black man crying outside the bus company’s offices after showing up for a job interview only to be told the position was gone.

After hearing the man’s story, Mr. Hackett recalled, “I then went and spoke to the company and told them, ‘If he can’t be taught to drive the bus, then the buses won’t be driven.’ ”

Mr. Hackett went on to spearhead a successful four-month protest that was credited with awakening England’s grass-roots civil rights struggle and changing the face of race relations in Britain. He was 93 when he died Aug. 3. His family announced the death to British media but did not share additional details.

The Black boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Co. led to the end of Britain’s long-standing unofficial — but at the time legal — “color bar” policies. Until the boycott, it was common in Bristol to refuse housing or jobs to non-Whites. The bus company contended Black transport staff would discourage White passengers.

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By the time Mr. Hackett launched the boycott movement, London and other British cities had started taking down “No Blacks” signs and hiring non-White bus and train drivers and station staff. But Bristol had generally resisted change.

Mr. Hackett’s boycott gained key support from some White Labour Party politicians, including future prime minister Harold Wilson. Groups of Asian and White students at the University of Bristol joined as well.

Protest groups in Bristol, led by Mr. Hackett, stood in front of buses to stop them.

The bus company agreed to the protesters’ demands on Aug. 28, 1963, the same day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It took two more years for Parliament to pass Britain’s landmark Race Relations Act in 1965, which outlawed discrimination based on “race or ethnic or national origins.”

Mr. Hackett was honored by Queen Elizabeth II for his civil rights activism, but unlike King or Rosa Parks in the United States, he never quite became a household name in Britain.

“He could have been Britain’s Martin Luther King if he had the same PR,” said Kehinde Andrews, a Black studies professor at Birmingham City University, in an interview with the London-based Metro newspaper. He added that Mr. Hackett “was the one that could galvanize the community, working at a grass-roots level. He said he was ‘born an activist,’ and I could see the fire in his eyes about the situation, even all these years later.”

After the boycott success, Mr. Hackett founded several groups to support Caribbean and other non-Whites in Bristol. That led to the creation in 1968 of the St. Pauls Carnival (named after a district of Bristol), an annual summer event that brings together residents of all races and ethnic backgrounds.

Roy Hackett was born in September 1928 in Islington, Jamaica. He grew up in the Trench Town district of Kingston, the capital, an area that was later made famous by the reggae singer Bob Marley, who spent part of his youth there.

Mr. Hackett worked as a bookkeeper until 1952, when he left for England to help rebuild the country after World War II. He joined a group of migrants from the Caribbean that became known as the Windrush Generation, named after the first major ship, the Empire Windrush, involved in a surge that would bring hundreds of thousands of people across the Atlantic Ocean.

His ship was bound for Liverpool but diverted by bad weather to Newfoundland, where he and his family prepared to disembark, thinking it was England.

He settled in Bristol in 1956, but the “better life” he had been promised turned into what he once described as “a dog’s life.”

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His girlfriend, Ena, joined him in Britain and they married in 1959. They were regularly turned down for housing and jobs, he said.

“I walked down Ashley Road [in Bristol] looking for housing and found one house which didn’t have a card on it that said ‘no gypsies, no dogs, no Irish and no coloureds,’ ” he told the BBC many years later. “The lady opened the door, saw me, and without saying a word, just slammed the door. It was a struggle, people were blatantly racist.”

Mr. Hackett eventually got a job as a construction worker and helped build a nuclear power station known as Hinkley Point near Bristol. For a time, one of his fellow workers was the future Welsh pop superstar Tom Jones. “He was always singing,” Mr. Hackett told the BBC.

Survivors include two daughters, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Mr. Hackett told the Guardian in 2020 that the Black Lives Matter protests, first in the United States and then around the world, gave him renewed hope for racial justice. “We fought for what we have now,” he said. “Let’s push it further.”

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