Roy Hackett, civil rights campaigner and leading force behind the Bristol bus boycott of 1963 – obituary

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Roy Hackett - Guardian/eyevine
Roy Hackett - Guardian/eyevine

Roy Hackett, who has died aged 93, was one of the figures behind the 1963 Bristol bus boycott, a four-month campaign to bring about an end to the local bus company’s ban on employing non-white drivers and conductors.

Bristol in the early 1960s was booming, with almost full employment and a voracious demand for labour fed by immigration from Ireland and from Britain’s former colonies. Few of the arrivals had difficulty finding menial jobs, but increasingly they found that higher-status work was closed to them.

By 1963 there were perhaps 3,000 or more Bristol residents who had come from the Caribbean. Some were veterans of the Second World War, while others, including Hackett, who had come to the UK from Jamaica in 1952, were more recent arrivals.

Most experienced direct or indirect racism. Under the law at the time, ethnic minorities could be banned from housing, employment and public places. It was legal to hang signs saying “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs” in public places. Hackett recalled being told by a white neighbour that he was being tormented at work because he lived next door to a black man: “They told him to ‘go home – your neighbour will be holding down your wife’.”

The flashpoint for protest was the unofficial “colour bar” which was being operated by the Bristol Omnibus Company, which had a monopoly on bus services in Bristol and the surrounding area.

Black and Asian people were employed by the company as workshop and canteen staff, and as cleaners, but not as drivers or conductors. When a local paper investigated, management blamed the unions. Indeed, while the TGWU at a national level was organising political action against apartheid in South Africa, its members in Bristol were refusing to work alongside black men and women.

Hackett, with four other men – Owen Henry, Audley Evans, Prince Brown and Paul Stephenson – formed an action group, later known as the West Indian Development Council, and Stephenson, the group’s spokesman, set up a test case to prove that the colour bar existed by arranging an interview with the bus company for a young Boys’ Brigade officer of impeccable credentials. When the company was told that the candidate was West Indian, the interview was cancelled.

A mural celebrating Hackett and the Bus Boycott in the St Pauls area of Bristol - Steve Taylor ARPS/Alamy
A mural celebrating Hackett and the Bus Boycott in the St Pauls area of Bristol - Steve Taylor ARPS/Alamy

Inspired by the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott action sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks, the African American woman who had refused to yield her bus seat to a white man, they announced the boycott of the bus company at a press conference on April 29 1963. The following day, they claimed that none of the city’s West Indians were using the buses and that many white people supported them. Hackett organised a blockade of one of the main bus routes into town.

The group faced hostility and threats of violence, but the boycott won the support of many Bristolians, including students from the university, and Tony Benn, the Labour MP for Bristol East, who enlisted the support of his party leader Harold Wilson.

It took months of disruption – and negotiations between the bus company and the union – until a mass meeting of 500 Bristol bus workers agreed to end the colour bar. On August 28 – the day Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington DC – the bar was lifted.

When Harold Wilson, as prime minister, brought in the first Race Relations Act in 1965, he told Stephenson that he had been inspired and informed by the lessons of the Bristol boycott.

In 2013 the TGWU’s successor, Unite, made a formal apology for its “completely unacceptable” stance at the time.

Roy Hackett was born in Jamaica in September 1928 and grew up in Trench Town, Kingston. As a young man he held down several jobs but struggled to make enough money to eat. He claimed to have been persuaded to come to Britain by Enoch Powell, who as health minister in the early 1960s promoted the recruitment of NHS staff from the Caribbean, though there is no record of his having addressed the meeting in Kingston that Hackett said he attended in the early 1950s.

Arriving by ship in Liverpool in 1952, Hackett lived in Toxteth for a time, before moving to London, Wolverhampton, and finally, in 1956, Bristol, where he struggled to find housing. “I walked down Ashley Road looking for housing and found one house which didn’t have a card on it to one that said ‘no gypsies, no dogs, no Irish and no coloureds’,” he recalled in an interview with the BBC. “The lady opened the door, saw me, and without saying a word, just slammed the door. It was a struggle, people were blatantly racist.”

When he eventually found lodgings it was a room in the St Pauls district initially shared with three other men. It was a “dog’s life”, he recalled.

He became a construction worker, with spells building the Hinkley Point nuclear power station and even working alongside the future Welsh pop star Tom Jones, who he recalled “was always singing”.

In Bristol he became involved in community activities, helping to found the Commonwealth Coordinated Committee, now the Bristol West Indian Parents and Friends Association. The group put pressure on the city council to improve housing conditions and employment prospects for black people.

After the bus boycott, inspired by memories of the Jamaican carnivals of his childhood when “everybody dresses up as a god or a devil and has their own role”, he founded what became the St Pauls Carnival.

He was appointed MBE in 2009 and OBE in 2020, though he was sceptical when a petition was launched to erect a statue of him on the plinth from which that of the slave trader Edward Colston was torn down.

In 1959 Hackett married Ena, with whom he had a daughter. He also had a daughter from a previous relationship in Jamaica.

Roy Hackett, born September 1928, died August 3 2022

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