For this series, Joe Newell reflects on The Bristol Bus Boycotts and examines the techniques adopted in this anti-racist campaign.
In 1961, the Bristol Evening Post exposed the racially discriminant employment policy of the city’s Omnibus Company. Although it did not reach beyond local borders, one aspiring young activist saw an opportunity to harness the scandal to elicit real change.
Paul Stephenson arrived in Bristol in 1962. Through his work as a youth officer, Stephenson found in his student, Guy Bailey, a poster child for an attack on the Omnibus Company’s race bar; Bailey was an ideal candidate for employment as a driver, but the manager immediately rejected him when he saw he was black. In conjunction with the West Indian Development Council, Stephenson highlighted Bailey’s experience at a special press conference. There, he called for a boycott of the company’s buses.
Owen Henry was deliberately photographed standing at the back of buses to draw parallels with Rosa Parks’ resistance
Through collective action, the boycott accelerated to encompass the whole city. Prominent council member Roy Hackett organised picketing of bus depots and regular marches blocking popular routes, along with wide refusal to use the buses. The boycott really changed pace, however, with Stephenson’s command of media attention. In a masterful press stunt, he propelled the issue to US audiences – Owen Henry was deliberately photographed standing at the back of buses to draw parallels with Rosa Parks’ resistance in Alabama. From there, the boycott quickly gained attention from high-profile political figures including Bristol’s MP Tony Benn and the future labour opposition leader Harold Wilson. All the while media outlets continued to voraciously print Bailey’s story.
The Omnibus Company caved under intense pressure from international media
After four months, the Omnibus Company caved under intense pressure from international media, from Westminster and from Bristol’s own residents. The company changed to a policy of ‘complete integration’ on the 28th August 1963, the same day that Martin Luther King Jr led a procession of 250,000 Americans to the Lincoln memorial. As with the march on Washington, key legislation closely followed – the Race Relations Act was passed two years later in the UK.
Acting alongside King, and evoking the memory of Parks, the boycott shows us the power of solidarity within the civil rights movement. This black