During October, we asked our colleagues to share what inspires them from black history; be that people, individual pieces of work or prose, hard-fought achievements, or inspirational speeches. From early 18th century activists to today’s politicians, and from writers to entertainers, below is our Black History: Inspired.
Let’s Keep the Conversation Going …
Click on the links below to find out a bit more about why these people inspire us; take time to share their stories with family, friends and colleagues. Together we can help promote awareness that Black history has, and is, shaping the future of a better society.
To start us off is a short poem written by Ruby Dee, a Black American actress, poet, playwright and civil rights activist. ‘Today is ours, let’s live it’ speaks so much to the present and helps us to find peace in the midst of all the chaos, darkness and strangeness that we are experiencing. It encourages us to not give up but to always fight for what is right. And when we have the courage, the confidence, and the willpower to fight for, and do what is right today, this poem reminds us that we are also doing it for tomorrow.
Today is ours, let’s live it
And love is strong, let’s give it
A song can help, let’s sing it
And peace is dear, let’s bring it
The past is gone, don’t rue it
Our work is here, let’s do it
The world is wrong, let’s right it
The battle is hard, let’s fight it
The road is rough, let’s clear it
The future is vast, don’t fear it
Is faith asleep? Let’s wake it
Because today is ours, let’s take it.
Diane Abbott, Keith Vaz, Paul Boateng and Bernie Grant, whose elections in 1987 saw the start of careers that would make history and inspire hundreds of young Black people. Demonstrating that Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic people can be elected into Parliament this historic election marked the first successful steps in diversifying politics in Britain. Fast forward 33 years and the UK now boasts the most diverse Parliament in its history.
Chinua Achebe: Achebe gave up his medical scholarship to study literature as he felt there were not enough African voices having their stories heard around the world. His first book ‘Things Fall Apart’ has become the most widely read work of African literature, providing an alternative viewpoint on the issues of colonialism from an African perspective.
Baroness [Valerie] Amos is a former politician and senior UN official who was appointed Director of SOAS, University of London in 2015. From 2010 she served as Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coodinator at the UN. She served in a number of roles in the public sector including local government and as Chief Executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission. An adviser to the Mandela Government on leadership and change management, she was appointed a Labour Life Peer in 1997. She was the first black woman to sit in the British cabinet as Secretary of State for international Development and she became leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council in 2003.
Maya Angelou, born in April 1928, was an American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist with a colourful yet troubling past which is highlighted in her most famous and internationally acclaimed autobiography: “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” which tells of her life up to the age of 17. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies and television shows spanning over 50 years. Her works have been considered a defence and celebration of black culture.
John Archer was a campaigner who, in 1913, was elected Mayor of Battersea. He was the first person of African descent to reach such a position in the UK. An equality campaigner, he chaired the Pan-African Congress in London in 1921 and was president of the African Progress Union.
Dame Jocelyn Barrow is a race relations pioneer. She was one of the founders of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, and her work has encompassed broadcast, healthcare, and housing. She even persuaded the retailers of Oxford Street to let people of colour work on the shop floor as opposed to the stock room where they had previously been working. Jocelyn was a founding member, general secretary and later vice-chair of Campaign Against Racial Discrimination. She was also a leading member of the North London West Indian Association, set up in 1965 after the Notting Hill riots to speak out on behalf of West Indians. As a senior teacher, and later as a teacher-trainer, Jocelyn pioneered the introduction of multi-cultural education, stressing the needs of the various ethnic groups in the UK.
Ruby Bridges, was just six years old when, in 1960, she embarked on a historic walk to school as the first African American student to integrate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana. As soon as Ruby entered the school, white parents pulled their own children out, and all but one of the teachers refused to teach. Every morning, as Ruby walked to school, one woman would threaten to poison her, while another held up a black baby doll in a coffin. Her early experience of such racism led her to become a civil rights activist and, in 1999, she established The Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance and create change through education.
Olaudah Equiano was the first political leader of Britain’s black community. He was born in Essaka in 1745 and, aged 11, was kidnapped with his sister and sold to slave-traders where he encountered such cruelty that when he could eventually purchase his freedom in 1766, he returned to London where he worked tirelessly in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and published his own autobiography which was regarded as the most important literary contribution to the campaign for abolition. He won widespread recognition as principal spokesman of Britain’s black community and made an outstanding contribution to his community in their struggle against slavery.
Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican political activist, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator. He was the founder and first President-General of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. Ideologically a black nationalist and Pan-Africanist, he was a controversial figure and his ideas became known as Garveyism. ‘If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life’
Dr Mae Jemison is an American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut. She became the first black woman to travel into space in 1992. She graduated with degrees in chemical engineering as well as African and African-American studies and then earned her medical degree from Cornell University. Jemison left NASA in 1993 and later formed a non-profit educational foundation. She is inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.”
Martin Luther King was the figurehead of the American Civil Rights Movement and became a national hero after leading the successful Montgomery bus boycott (see Rosa Parks below). In 1964 he received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his work. Powered by faith, inspired by Gandhi and motivated by hope for equal treatment for all, Martin Luther King delivered words to a generation that moved them to change the way they thought, and which ultimately shifted the world. Two inspirational quotes, one lesser known than the other: “Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you are nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.” “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Coretta Scott King was an American author, activist, civil rights leader, and the wife of Martin Luther King Jr. An advocate for African-American equality, she was a leader for the civil rights movement in the 1960s. She was also a singer who often incorporated music into her civil rights work. Coretta played a prominent role in the years after her husband’s assassination in 1968 when she took on the leadership of the struggle for racial equality herself and became active in the Women’s Movement. She founded the King Centre and sought to make her late husband’s birthday a national holiday. She finally succeeded when Ronald Reagan signed legislation which established Martin Luther King Jr. Day on November 2, 1983. “Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated.”
Baroness [Doreen] Lawrence played a major role in improving social justice in the UK today. In 1993, her son Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racially motivated attack. She and her husband Neville embarked on a 19-year campaign to bring Stephen’s murderers to justice. The inquiry concluded that the Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’ and proposed a range of reforms to combat discrimination and improve equality in policing and the criminal justice system. She also founded the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust in memory of her son which supports young people with their careers and promotes social enterprise. In 2002 she received an OBE for her services to community relations and, in 2013, was made a life peer in the House of Lords.
Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 and is considered to be one of the most inspirational leaders in history. A key anti-apartheid figure in South Africa, he spent 27 years in prison for the cause. After his release, he became the country’s first fully democratically elected president and leader of the African National Congress. In his inaugural presidential speech ‘The Rainbow Nation’ he inspired a generation with the words: “We shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall without any fear in their hearts, assured of the inalienable right to human dignity, a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” In 1993 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. In his plight for equality at a time when black people could not play sport alongside white people he said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
Bob Marley – was a Jamaican singer, songwriter, and musician who is considered one of the pioneers of reggae. His musical career increased the visibility of Jamaican music worldwide and made him a global figure. He also advocated for Pan-Africanism and used his song writing to inspire love, life and hope. He died at just 37 years old from cancer and was posthumously honoured by Jamaica with a designated Order of Merit.
Sir Trevor McDonald OBE is a Trinidadian-British newsreader and journalist, best known for his career as a news presenter with ITN. McDonald is regarded as one of the most influential and engaging newsreaders and presenters of all time. He has also researched and presented a number of high-profile documentaries raising awareness of the judicial and penitentiary systems. He was knighted in 1999 for his services to media.
Kwame Nkrumah: A Pan-Africanism proponent, Nkrumah was one of Africa’s foremost freedom fighters, nationalist, writer, and thinker who influenced a generation of Pan-African nationalists and freedom fighters. He was also a founding member of the Organisation of African Unity. ‘’The forces that unite us are intrinsic and greater than the superimposed influences that keep us apart.’’
Barack Obama is America’s first – and to date only – Black president in a country with a history of slavery and prolonged racial tensions. His achievements included the introduction of the affordable care act to increase the availability of affordable medical care; he ended the ban on openly LGBT citizens serving in the military; and he fought gender-based pay discrimination. His presidency became synonymous with an end goal of the civil rights movement and a source of pride for so many black people and Americans. His wife Michelle Obama was hugely influential in his career, and she has spoken candidly about experiencing racism as a Black woman in America, both in and out of the White House; she continues to be a force in the campaign to stamp out racism.
Rosa Parks, often called ‘The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement’ refused to give up her seat to a white male passenger on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Four days later, black people in the city organised a boycott that lasted for over a year. This collective protest employed Martin Luther King as its spokesperson and initiated the beginning of the civil rights movement.
Franklin Augustine Thomas is an American businessman and philanthropist who was president and CEO of the Ford Foundation from 1979 until 1996. Since leaving the foundation, Thomas continued to serve in leadership positions in American corporations and has been on the board of the TFF Study Group, a non-profit institution assisting development in South Africa since 2005. He was also involved in the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, serving as the manager of its American office. “One day our descendants will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin or the shape of our eyes or our gender instead of the unique identities of each of us as complex human beings.”
Ahmed Sékou Touré was a Guinean political leader and African statesman who became the first President of Guinea, serving from 1958 until his death in 1984. Touré was among the primary Guinean nationalists involved in gaining independence of the country from France. “We prefer poverty in liberty than riches in slavery.”
Harriet Tubman risked her life in 1849 when she escaped from her owners and crossed the border to Pennsylvania – a state where slavery was abolished in 1780. She joined a network known as ‘The Underground Railroad’ and helped more than 70 other slaves to escape. She became prominent in the abolition movement and helped the Union during the American Civil War. Today, she is the face of the 2020 $20 note.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist. He was the Bishop of Johannesburg from 1985 to 1986 and then Archbishop of Cape Town until 1996, in both cases being the first black African to hold the position. Despite divided opinion, he was widely popular among South Africa’s black community, and was internationally praised for his anti-apartheid activism, receiving a range of awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize. ‘Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
Wilfred Denniston Wood was the first black bishop in the Church of England, who came to wider attention in Britain for speaking out on racial injustice. Throughout his Ministry, Bishop Wood had a strong interest in race relations and social justice. He was appointed the Bishop of London Officer in race relations, also serving on a number of other important boards from 1978 to 1981.
He became Bishop of Croydon in 1985, becoming the first ever black Bishop in the Church of England. Described as “a wide and trusted defender of the rights of minorities”, Bishop wood was appointed Knight of St. Andrew (Order of Barbados) in 2000 by Queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to race relations in the United Kingdom.
Asquith Xavier Just five short decades ago, Xavier was refused promotion by British Rail due a ban on Black workers holding railway jobs where they met the public. Dissatisfied with this decision, he campaigned to end the racial discrimination practiced by British Rail and his hard-fought battle meant that, on August 15, 1966, he became the first non-white guard to be employed at Euston Station. Subsequently, the Commission for Racial Equality was created. His campaign also led to the strengthening of the Race Relations Act (1968) which made it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to people because of their ethnic background.
Ophra Winfrey is best known as an American talk show host and television producer; she is also a successful author, advocator for African American History and Culture, and is ranked the greatest black philanthropist in American history. Getting people talking about their lives and addressing sensitive issues, her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, is the highest-rated television program of its kind in history. Dubbed the “Queen of All Media”, she is ranked as the most influential woman in the world.