It was only today that I learned of the existence of Olive Morris. A campaigner and activist, a radical Black feminist, an inspiring young woman, who fought for racial and social equality in South London in the 1960s and ’70s.
Today would have been her 68th birthday.
Black British history is a hole in our National Curriculum which the government just doesn’t seem to want to fix. When I was at school, admittedly quite a while ago now (!), we had bits and pieces: we had events for Black History Month and celebrated multiculturalism in our annual Mayfair, but the only time I remember sitting down in a History lesson to learn about Black history was in reference to the US Civil Rights Movement. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to learn about Martin Luther King Jr. and racial segregation in the US, because British imperialism had as much a hand there as it did here, but where were our lessons on the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, the Mangrove Nine or, in this case, Olive Morris?
Olive Morris was born on this day (26th June) in 1952 in Jamaica. By the age of nine, she had moved to the UK and was living in South London with her parents and three siblings: Basil, Jennifer, and Ferran. Her mother, Doris, built radios and TVs in a factory and cleaned offices, and her father, Vincent, was a forklift driver.
It didn’t take Morris long to get involved in the local Brixton community. Already in her early teenage years, she took a stand against the many injustices she saw in society and joined the British Black Panthers Youth branch, and this association with the British Black Panther Movement continued throughout her life.
She left school with no qualifications, but that didn’t stop her from going to college to study her O and A Levels (whilst balancing a full time job), and later getting a degree from Manchester University in Social Sciences (1978). Don’t worry though, Morris also didn’t let her university studies get in the way of her activism! While in Manchester, she was a diligent member of the Manchester Black Women’s Cooperative and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group. If that wasn’t enough, she also found time to help set up a supplementary school and campaigned for the abolition of university fees for overseas students.
She fought so hard for Black civil rights in the UK, and her activism seems to have been channelled into four main areas: an end to police brutality, Black feminism, access to education, and improved housing / living conditions.
Before and after her time in Manchester, she was also busy in London. She co-founded both the Brixton Black Women’s Group (1974) and the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (1978). These were some of the first networks for women of colour in the UK and were so important in the bolstering and identity of Black feminism. Black women often felt alienated by White feminists and more “mainstream” feminist campaigns. In addition, by forming groups dedicated to Black women, they could concentrate on the issues and stereotypes which specifically affected Black women.
Morris is probably most closely associated with the squatting campaigns of the 1970s. She opened a squat above a laundrette at 121 Railton Road with Liz Obi to draw attention to the considerable number of properties which stood vacant in Brixton, all while countless people remained homeless. Determination and patience meant that the squat operated there from 1973 to 1999 – one of the longest squats in the history of Brixton. Yep, Brixton has a proud history for that kind of thing. Sticking it to The Man.
From the mid to late 1970s, 121 Railton Road was also used as a base for the Brixton Black Panther movement and later as a Black advice centre and the Sabaar bookshop. It was also around this time that Morris and Obi established another squat on Railton Road at no.64.
I think this photo is brilliant. That is Olive Morris in 1973 at the 121 Railton Road squat, clearly telling property agent Mr. Defries that he needs to move along. The sign in the window behind her says in no uncertain terms: THIS PROPERTY HAS BEEN OCCUPIED BY SQUATTERS. WE INTEND TO STAY HERE. IF YOU TRY TO EVICT US, WE WILL PROSECUTE. YOU MUST DEAL WITH US THROUGH THE COURTS.
There were several attempts to evict Morris and Obi and both women were arrested on multiple occasions.
Did that send them packing? Hell no. One attempt to arrest Morris ended with her escaping by climbing onto the roof of the squat, where she continued to protest to police from up there.
Unfortunately, Morris’ astounding life was cut short. She died in 1979 of cancer at the age of 27, but she had such an impact and left such an important legacy in that short time. I wanted to focus on two stories which, I think, embody her strength of character.
In 1969, aged just 17, she stood up to police after they had beaten and wrongfully arrested a Nigerian diplomat on Atlantic Road in Brixton. Clement Gomwalk was targeted by police for nothing more than driving a nice Mercedes.
A barely over 5ft Morris confronted the police. In response, they attacked and arrested her. In her own account, in an article by Tanisha C. Ford in The Other Special Relationship, “three cops… threw me into the van”, “each time I tried to talk or raise my head I was slapped in the face… I was kicked in the chest”. She was subsequently charged with threatening behaviour, assault on the police and possessing dangerous weapons. In turn she was fined £10 and given a three month suspended sentence for two years. But this only pushed her to keep fighting.
Another inspiring story took place in 1972. In a council flat fire, tragically two children died after the portable heaters in the residence were knocked over. In response, Morris helped organise a protest to demand safer heating in council properties. The protest included fifteen children who had been so affected by the event that they felt the need to take a stand and be heard at such a young age. The protest took place outside the Lambeth Council offices. When they threatened to call the police, Morris told the crowd to disperse. She knew that the police wouldn’t arrest the children so she sent them into the council building instead. Not long after, the head of the housing department emerged and agreed to look into the matter. As a result, central heating was installed in the building.
It has been really inspiring researching Olive Morris, and I just regret it’s taken me until today to do it.
I think there is more awareness of her generally in Brixton, particularly amongst people who grew up there in the later twentieth-century. Or certainly, there are more references to her in Brixton. There’s been a Lambeth Council building on Brixton Hill named after her since 1986 (although the building was demolished this year to be redeveloped into 74 new flats [40% affordable] with retail space below – as I understand it though, a memorial to Morris is planned for the new building).
There was a mural inspired by her put up in 2017 in Blenheim Gardens by Breeze Yoko.
She’s featured on the Brixton £1 note (a local currency to encourage spending at Brixton businesses).
In 2015, this display about local heroes was featured in the windows of the Brixton Advice Centre on Railton Road (the same road Morris squatted on). You can’t see it so well in the photos, but Olive Morris is there, at the end of the right hand photo, in the ‘N’.
There are organisations beyond the local who are making sure that more attention is given to Olive Morris. The Remembering Olive Collective has links back to 2006 with the ‘Do You Remember Olive Morris?’ project, and seeks “to document and make public the story of Olive Morris, her contemporaries and the issues she fought for“. The Black Cultural Archives launched an online resource with Google Arts and Culture today. The Olive Morris Memorial Award was introduced in 2011: a prize of £500 each to three women aged 16 and 27 years of age, of African or Asian descent. Young women following in Morris’ footsteps, engaging “in radical grassroots political work… or those who are victims of repression for their political activities”.
In such a rapidly changing area such as Brixton, it’s so important to maintain these histories and keep telling the stories which have built the UK into what it is today. We can only imagine what Olive Morris would have achieved if she’d been able to continue on the revolutionary trajectory she started on. The least we can do is honour all that she managed in the eighteen years she had in the UK, and the people she inspired in the process.
“My heart will always be in Brixton”Olive Morris