The Specials, Leeds 1981. Photo: The Guardian. The Specials, Leeds 1981. Photo: The Guardian.

Jim Aindow looks at the history and impact of an inspirational anti-racist movement told through the photos of Syd Shelton in an exhibition at the Rivington Place gallery

Britain in the mid-1970s was a very different place to today. Racist language was an accepted part of everyday vocabulary, and bigoted comedians and unflattering stereotypes of ‘ethnic minorities’ were the norm on television. Even so called alternative events like the Reading Festival in 1976 saw the reggae band ‘The Mighty Diamonds’ being pelted with bottles and booed off stage. 

Economic downturn had led to a decline in living standards for the first time since the Second World War and running parallel to this was the electoral rise of an openly racist party, the National Front, whose leadership had a fascist pedigree going back to Britain’s own would-be dictator, Oswald Mosley. They gained 100,000 votes in the 1977 GLC elections and up to 40% in some areas.

A moment of danger

This was a dangerous and pivotal moment that would have left us facing a much less favourable situation then we do today if it had not been for the determined intervention of anti-racists, revolutionaries, Asians and black people prepared to confront what some saw as an unstoppable rise of the right.

Syd Shelton was one of those that took a stand against racism. He was part of the backbone of activists that organised Rock Against Racism. He is also a talented photographer who has recently published a book of black and white photos from this period, and has an exhibition of the same title, ‘Rock Against Racism’ showing at Autograph gallery in Shoreditch. 

A key event in the fight back against the NF was the Battle of Lewisham in 1977 when the NF attempted to march through New Cross, an area with a large black population, in a so called ‘Anti Mugging’ demonstration. Anti-racists countered this march and actively organised the locals to take on the NF as well as the massive mobilisation of police that defended them. 

Syd’s dramatic image of black rights activist Darcus Howe, megaphone in hand, rallying the local people to fight, against a background of high-rise flats, is an amazing portrait of urban revolt. Elsewhere are photos of battered and bewildered NF supporters, and jubilant anti-racists holding aloft the remnants of an NF banner. Another poignant image from earlier in the day shows a small group of black and white friends enjoying a laugh. 

Turning point

The success the Battle of Lewisham led the SWP, who a played a significant role in it, to initiate the Anti Nazi League (ANL), a united front of people and organisations prepared to confront the NF wherever and whenever they appeared.

RAR had its own path of initiation, the spark of which was Eric Clapton’s racist outburst on stage in Birmingham when he declared his support for Enoch Powell and his belief that there were too many black people in Britain. This from a man whose whole craft was lifted from black Americans and blues artists, who he allegedly idolised. In response, Red Saunders sent a letter of protest at Clapton’s comments to the music press. This was the call to arms that galvanised RAR.  

Over the next few years, RAR brought together the high energy of punk with the burgeoning British reggae scene, to create a dynamic, exuberant mash up of music, style and creativity. Prior to RAR musical genres generally inhabited their own spaces, RAR helped break those artificial barriers and in so doing encouraged and nudged punk away from its more nihilistic and potentially reactionary tendencies. 

On the march

RAR organised hundreds of gigs around the UK, and in co-ordination with the ANL built a number of massive demonstrations and ‘carnivals’, the first of which was on the NF’s home turf, East London. Over 100,000 people marched from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, where the Clash, Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson, X-Ray Spex and others performed. 

At a recent Q&A Syd described how a holocaust survivor stood applauding and marvelling at the exotic looking youngsters for several hours, as the sprawling protest went by her shop in Bethnal Green. In ‘Beating Time’, David Widgery, another RAR activist, sadly no longer with us, recalled a similar sight, but from a very different perspective, that of NF newspaper sellers, initially sneering, but gradually becoming increasingly demoralised as the size and breadth of the demonstration became apparent. 

Syd also told how musician Billy Bragg recently contacted him, hoping to find a photo of himself at the carnival, which he describes as ‘the day I became political’. Bragg recalled how he had seen a group holding a banner saying ‘Gays against the Nazis’ and how he was initially confused until the penny dropped, and he recognised why they might have particular reasons for opposing the NF. 

Shifting the ground

In a way, the carnivals, gigs and demos put on by RAR and the ANL gave that generation the space and opportunity to see each other – black, Asian, women, gay, straight, etc. – in a different light: to party together, struggle together, to ask questions, and maybe change how they felt about each other. It was these struggles – not some inherent tolerance – that has shaped the more integrated, if imperfect Britain we live in today. 

However, it wasn’t all fun on the barricades. Altab Ali was murdered by racists in Brick Lane and Blair Peach was murdered by the police in Southall, many others were beaten or imprisoned. One of the reasons RAR gigs had such an edge, was that nobody knew if the nasties would turn up! 

Syd’s pictures of the participants capture the sometimes ecstatic moments of unity, whilst others show the unpromising circumstances in which these struggles took place. There are portraits of both racist skins and anti-racist skins, all with an immediacy that bring them to life and standing directly in front of you. His images rarely fall into the ‘group shot with placards’ most associated with the left press. Having said that, there are some great pictures of Bengali textile workers protesting their right to self-defence against racist violence. 

By the beginning of the 1980s the electoral threat of the NF had receded and the emergence of the multi-racial two-tone movement in music proved that both the ANL and RAR had had an immense impact. Not all Sheldon’s images are stand-alone, stone-cold classics, but all are evocative, and together tell a fascinating story of the period.

The exhibition is not just a historical record but a testimony to the potential for multi-racial resistance in Britain. As the establishment’s demonisation of immigrants and the Muslim community escalates, we need to learn from the past to shape the future. 

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