Obituary: Darcus Howe – An Appreciation

Credit: Syd Shelton in ‘Rock Against Racism’

Brian Richardson reflects on the sad loss of Darcus Howe and his contribution to the struggle against racism in Britain.

“A larger than life, ebullient and assertive figure” is how Michael Mansfield QC describes Darcus Howe who he represented in the famous Mangrove Nine trial at the Od Bailey in 1971.  That he most certainly was.

In that trial, Darcus was one of nine people, also including Frank Critchlow and Barbara Beese, who successfully fought off multiple charges of conspiracy to riot, affray and assaults on the police.  The real truth was that the Mangrove restaurant in Ladbroke Grove was at that time a centre of community organisation and resistance to racism.

Darcus Howe – An Appreciation

Darcus was a powerful and persuasive advocate of struggle against racism, a chip off the block of his uncle, the great Trinidadian activist CLR James.  He carried that tenacity into his editorship of the magazine Race Today and the TV programmes he worked on and fronted such as Black on Black, The Bandung File and Devil’s Advocate.

Forty years ago he was one of the key activists involved in the August 1977 Lewisham demonstration that brought black and white activists together in a protest that played a critical role in halting the rise of the Nazi National Front.  One of the most striking images of that day shows Darcus standing on a platform, surrounded by a group of young men, megaphone in hand rallying the crowd.  It was out of that mass mobilisation that the Anti Nazi League (ANL) was established.

Four years after this he was one of the leading figures in organising the Black Peoples March to demand justice for the victims of the New Cross Fire in which 13 young black people died.

Darcus understood the need for unity in struggle and acknowledged the crucial role of the ANL in cementing  this in opposition to the NF and in creating a wider anti racist atmosphere.  According to the campaigning journalist Paul Foot, when speaking at a memorial event for David Widgery a GP and leading figure in the ANL and Rock Against Racism, Darcus described the experience of the five children he had fathered in Britain:

“The first four had grown up angry, fighting forever against racism all around them.  The fifth child, he said had grown up ‘black and at ease’.  Darcus attributed her ‘space’ to the Anti Nazi League.”

Of course, as Darcus himself knew, despite the demise of the NF, racism never disappeared from British society.  Today in Britain as elsewhere in Europe and across the world there is an alarming spike in all forms of racism, from Islamophobia and antisemitism to the demonisation of refugees, asylum seekers and foreign migrants.  Violent racists have been emboldened by this atmosphere.  Witness the most recent horrific attack upon a teenage asylum seeker in Croydon, south London.

In standing up to racism in 2017 we should take inspiration from figures such as Darcus Howe.

Rest in Power.