Today we remember Olive Morris, the Jamaican-born British-based community leader, feminist, activist, British Black Panther and squatters’ rights campaigner, who sadly died on this day, 12th July, 1979 at the age of just twenty-seven.
Born in 1952 in Harewood, St Catherine, Jamaica, Morris emigrated to the UK at the age of nine as part of the Windrush generation, living in South London for much of her life. Her father, Vincent Nathaniel Morris, worked as a forklift truck operator, her mother, Doris Lowena, was a shop steward and she had three brothers and two sisters. One of her earliest political actions was when she intervened in the arrest of Nigerian diplomat Clement Gomwalk outside the Brixton record shop, ‘Desmond’s Hip City’ on 15th November, 1969. Morris, aged just seventeen, witnessed officers confront the diplomat with the spurious accusation of stealing a car. Using the sus laws, the police officers refused to believe that Gomwalk was a foreign diplomat and proceeded to physically remove him from his Mercedes and attack him in the street. According to journalist, Aymo Martin Tajo, Morris broke through the crowd that had gathered to witness the incident and tried to get between the police and Gomwalk to stop the assault – the upshot being that the police proceeded to beat her too. However, Morris herself claimed that she did not arrive until after Gomwalk had been taken away by the police, whereupon the crowd had began to confront the remaining officers over the brutal treatment they had witnessed. It was here, according to Morris, that the officers turned their attentions on her. As she was dressed in men’s clothing and wore her hair short, it is said that the police did not believe she was a woman, and proceeded to beat her so brutally that her brother Basil later testified that he “could hardly recognize her face”. At the station, Morris was forced to strip before officers. “They all made me take off my jumper and my bra in front of them to show I was a girl. A male cop holding a billy club said, ‘Now prove you’re a real woman.” Referencing the club he was brandishing, Morris states that this officer subsequently said; “Look it’s the right colour and the right size for you. Black cunt!” Threatened with rape and suffering terrible injuries from her assault, Morris was charged with assaulting a police officer, threatening behaviour and possession of a dangerous weapon. Trumped up charges that saw her fined £10 and given a three month suspended sentence for two years.
It’s perhaps little surprise then that, following such a harrowing experience, Morris would go on to join the British Black Panther Movement, later the Black Workers Movement, alongside the likes of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Clovis Reid in the early 1970s. Also around this time, and taking her cue from a Women’s Centre set up by a group of white women in a squat on Railton Road, Morris and her friend Liz Obi decided that something similar was needed to help their own community and they set about occupying a privately owned flat above a launderette at number 121 on the same road. There, they made both a home and a hub of political activism, which played host to several community groups, such as Black People against State Harassment, each indicating where Morris stood politically at this point. However, unlike squatting in council owned properties, occupying a privately owned property proved to be a much trickier affair. The owners and property agents (such as Mr Defries pictured with Morris below) sought the help of a local police force all too eager to wage war upon Morris and Obi, and the women were to resist several eviction attempts and arrested numerous times. Most memorably, in January 1973, Morris climbed onto the roof of the house and proceeded to harangue the policemen on the street below. When things got too hot at 121, the duo promptly moved down the road to a council owned property at number 64, but their actions inspired many and 121 became the Sabaar Bookshop, one of the first Black community bookshops, and an anarchist project known as the 121 Centre until a successful eviction in 1999, twenty years after Morris’ death.
Morris continued to play a leading role in radical movements, becoming a founding member of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD). In 1974, Morris co-founded the Brixton Black Women’s Group. Inspired by the American feminists of the late 1960s, the organisation’s aim was to raise consciousness to focus the attention of the wider world on the daily experiences of Black British women at the time. The group pushed for greater transparency and unity within their community and an appreciation of their existence within the political framework of the country as a whole. Eventually, the group was dissolved to create several more specific groups that addressed individual issues in a continued attempt at raising awareness of racial prejudice and the Black struggle overall. During this time, Morris was highly critical of the hypocrisy she saw within the predominantly white trade union movement, which liberally used rhetoric about ‘unity’ whilst all the while scabbing Black labour during strikes and defending employers such as Standard Telephone and Cables who practiced lower pay for Black workers. By 1975, Morris Moved to Manchester to became a student at the city’s university. Between 1975 and 1978, she linked up with several Black Mancunian Feminist activists to co-found groups such as the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group. Keen to ensure better education provision for the children of Black parents in the area, Morris also successfully campaigned for a supplementary school.
It was whilst on holiday in Spain in 1978, that Morris began to feel ill. Returning home to London, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and, although she received treatment, it was unsuccessful. Her short yet incredibly remarkable life came to a close at St Thomas’ Hospital in Lambeth forty-one years ago today. Her legacy lives on, not just in building named after her or her features on Brixton currency, but in her beliefs which continue to echo within the present Black Lives Matter movement as we struggle for greater equality and an end to oppression.
“The fight against racism and fascism is completely bound up with the fight to overthrow capitalism, the system that breeds both” – Olive Morris.
Rest In Power.