A trailblazing activist, writer and broadcaster is remembered by Madeline Heneghan
All at Writing on the Wall are sad to hear of the unexpected death of activist, journalist and broadcaster Darcus Howe. Darcus was a guest of the Festival over several years and it was a great privilege to get to know personally a man who was a political hero from my teenage years.
Darcus delivered one of the Festival’s most successful and memorable ‘Rebel Rants’. In it he examined the persistence of racism, despite gains made by Britain’s black communities in the period following the case of Stephen Lawrence, the teenager murdered by Nazis in South East London in 1993. For all the massive national campaign in response to that outrage and to the police’s failure to act against the killers, and the very critical Macpherson Report that was eventually produced, his case was that institutional racism still plagued the police force and wider society.
He charted the return of police stop and search tactics, the drift of young black men into violence in the absence of opportunities, the increasing hostility towards immigrants and the rise of Islamophobia. This summed up the man. He was angry and defiant, but also enthusiastically analytical.
Darcus’ lived experiences as a veteran anti-racist campaigner made him the perfect community militant; from his arrest in defence of the Mangrove café in Notting Hill in 1970, his leadership of the 20,000 Black People's March that followed the murder of 13 young people in a racist arson attack in New Cross in 1981, to his explanation of the anger felt by young black people expressed in the 2011 inner city disturbances.
But he was also a sharp political thinker, mentored from an early age by his uncle the great Trinidadian Marxist CLR James. Whether speaking for The Race Today collective, writing his columns in The Voice and The New Statesman or fronting up ground-breaking TV shows like the Bandung File and later White Tribe, he communicated his militant ideas to millions. Nobody would agree with everything he said, but he was always insightful and always fiercely passionate.
His 2011 appearance on BBC commenting on the riots was a recent reminder of the man's defiant spirit. The BBC had to apologise after he took apart a hostile presenter. Again and again he stood firm against official intimidation and racism, and he was throughout his life a stalwart defender of black and working class youth.
In 1969 Darcus was central to events around the Mangrove café in Notting Hill which culminated in a much-celebrated victory for the black power movement over the police. Following repeated police drug raids on the Mangrove café, a centre of black community organising (in which nothing was ever found) the community protested. During clashes with the police nine people including Darcus were arrested and charged with rioting and affray. After a high-profile campaign and a vigorous political defence, The Mangrove Nine were acquitted. There is a famous picture from that time of Darcus addressing a demo before it moved off.
In 2010 at the funeral of Frank Crichlow, also one the Mangrove Nine and lifelong activist, Darcus, not long recovered from prostate cancer, climbed up on a car and addressed the mourners from the same corner in Notting Hill.
Throughout his life he defended the community with fearless passion. He was there when thousands beat the Nazi National Front off the streets of Lewisham in 1977, and promptly became a supporter of the Anti-Nazi League, which emerged from that victory. As well as being an inspirational speaker he was clearly a great organiser, playing a key role in the huge Black People’s March that followed the New Cross arson attack in 1981.
Darcus loved to be with his community and after the events that we were involved in together in Liverpool and Birmingham we sat late into the night chatting, reminiscing and challenging those that had attended.
In the words of his friend the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, he was a ‘Mighty Lion’. He will be terribly missed but the most important thing is that his legacy is carried forward. We need his combination of fighting spirit, inquiring mind, implacable will and organising flair now more than ever.