Olive Morris (26 June 1952 – 12 July 1979) was a political activist in Brixton, London, and in Moss Side, Manchester, described as a “challenger”. On her birthday this week, we remember her legacy.
Challenging bullies in the police force
On 15 November 1969, Olive Morris confronted two racist police officers as they dragged a black man out of his car and began to beat him. The man happened to be a Nigerian diplomat, and his supposed crime was a parking offence, meanwhile his wife and children bore witness to the assault from the inside of the car. Aged just 17 years old, Olive’s determination to challenge bullies was no more evident than this moment – standing at five feet and two inches, valiantly trying to stop the officers, she herself was violently abused and arrested.
Olive states that her abusive treatment and humiliation at the hands of the police did not stop there. When in police custody, she recalls: “They all made me take off my jumper and my bra in front of them to show I was a girl.” Olive’s brother also states that this incident left her so bruised from the police beatings at the time, that she was unrecognisable.
Olive was fined £10 and given a suspended sentence on charges of assault on the police, threatening behaviour and possession of a dangerous weapon. Even when her own safety was at risk, Olive did not back down.
Challenging the establishment amid the housing crisis
Due to an affordable housing crisis in Lambeth, squatting in Brixton in the late ‘50s was particularly prevalent. Olive and her friend Liz (Obi) Turnbull found themselves with nowhere to live in 1973, and eventually, decided to squat in a private property at 121 Railton Road, Lambeth.
The owners and property agents made several attempts to evict them, and the police arrested them many times. But Olive and Obi always returned to the property. The most well known occasion was when Obi was forcibly arrested by the police, and Olive returned to the property that same day where the police tried to arrest her too. She then resisted and climbed onto the roof of the building where she protested her treatment by the police and property owners. Photos of this incident appeared in several newspapers and, years later, famously adorned the front of the Squatters Handbook, 1979 edition.
Even when threatened with homelessness and legal action, Olive did not back down. Being the first to successfully squat in a private property in Lambeth, she was a pioneer in her own way, opening up the conversation about homelessness in the area.
The squat at 121 Railton Road became a hub of political activity, with Olive and Obi running various community groups through it, as well as the first black community bookshop. The property remained a social hub and base for the squatters’ movement until 1999.
Challenging radical movements in Britain
Olive Morris was a radical black feminist, whose everyday actions were a reflection of her values.
While studying in Manchester University, Moss Side, Olive successfully campaigned with black parents to establish a school that provided a better standard of education for their children. She seemed to resonate with people who were being taught that they had less rights than everyone else and communities who felt isolated from a world in which they were lied to – where their submissive position was reinforced day after day.
Olive not only challenged class oppression, but also the fractures within class movements. After trying to work with trade unionists, she said:
“We have used the great British tradition of trade unionism to try and further our cause for equality and justice, but on countless occasions we have found that the movement does one thing for white workers and another for black workers.”
“White workers have time and time again refused to give our unions recognition, they have crossed our picket lines for racist reasons, they have organised against our organisation in the trade unions.”
When Stella Dadzie met Olive in 1977 as part of black women’s organising, they instantly got on. She states that Olive was intelligent but relatable:
“Olive was different, Olive was the sort of woman I felt, yeah, you could be one of those people I was raving with last week, in this club, sort of thing, in a shabeen [an unlicensed bar] even!”
She continues: “I always remember her at events speaking out, always having a contribution to make in her own way and always challenging the men.”
Danny DaCosta, a photographer with the Black Panthers in the early 1970s and a friend of Olive, calls Olive a “talawa”. He explains what he means by this term: “[Someone who is] well-grounded and firm and strong, and that’s my definition of “talawa”. Olive, to me, always suggested somebody who was strong within themselves, was well-grounded, could hold her own.”
Challenging the UK black power movement
Black organisations in the UK in the 1970s, like the British Black Panther Movement, would address issues that faced the black community broadly. But women within these movements did not feel that their voices were being heard.
Olive saw this injustice and moved away from these organisations. She became one of the founding members of the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), the first black women’s organisation at the time. She also co-founded the Brixton Black Women’s Group.
Olive, along with other members, actively challenged organisations that were about empowering black people. It was not good enough to empower only the black men in these organisations, women – all women of colour – had to be worth fighting for.
Challenging established cultures and ways of life
Olive was a role model. When everyone went right, she would go left. In her ever so short life of 27 years she travelled as much as possible. She visited China to observe how a socialist society was being built. She would later convey that information when she returned to Britain, believing the resources of the world should be spread evenly amongst everyone. She also travelled to Morocco, Algeria, Spain, France and Hong Kong, experiencing different cultures. Olive embraced every culture and tried to answer important questions about how we can truly achieve equality.
Challenging social expectations
Olive was not afraid of being herself. She had a white boyfriend, a relationship that, at the time, other black radicals might have frowned upon or hidden. Not Olive, a talawa. She was upfront and open about being in a mixed race relationship. She was a role model for those in a similar situation, afraid of “coming out” and a role model for mixed race people who regularly had their “blackness” questioned.
Olive and her partner Mike McColgan wrote a piece in 1978 titled ‘Has the Anti-Nazi League got it right on racism?’ where they looked at institutional racism within the police force and education system, and ways of dealing with fascism. Remember, this was 21 years before the MacPherson Report, which detailed the extent of institutional racism following the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Olive was not seduced by the cry of anti-Nazi groups to “unite and fight”. She commented that this was doomed to failure stating “there is no sound basis on which such unity could be built”.
Challenger to the very end
Olive died at a brutally young age of 27 from lymphoma, a type of cancer. The situation was tragic, but Olive displayed a dignity which was ever present in her life. Stella Dadzie comments on her final moments:
“Olive sat up in bed and called to the nurse – remember most of the nurses were black in those days, still are, really – called to the nurse and said ‘I’m thirsty. Can I have a glass of water?’ And the nurse brought her the water and she drank it, and laid back on her pillow and breathed her last. And I kind of liked that story, I don’t know why, there’s nothing particularly heroic about it, but it was just so matter of fact, such a mundane thing to do.”
“There was no, ‘Please sit with me. I think I’m dying’, although she must’ve known. I’m sure we all have an instinctive feeling when we’re about to go. A strong, brave, grounded woman right up to the last moment.”
Olive’s legacy, in my mind, is that of local activism. Through her political stance, her fighting spirit and her ability to connect with people, Olive challenged racism, social norms, the establishment, the police and education systems. She stood up and empowered herself and her community – and fought until the day she died.
Talawa ‘til the end.
Danny DaCosta, Date of Interview: 06 July 2009
Judith Lockhart, Date of Interview: 15 July 2009
Stella Dadzie, Date of Interview: 29 May 2009
All interviews from the ‘Do you remember Olive Morris? Oral History Project’ at the Olive Morris Collection at Lambeth Archives
Image via Fawcett Society website
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