We cannot celebrate Black History Month without acknowledging the contribution of some key individuals and the hundreds of unsung heroes in our communities. The abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1797) lived in Blackheath. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Freeman of the Borough, was one of our more notable residents in Grove Park in the 1970’s. Former Civic Mayor and Freeman of the Borough Mrs Sybil Phoenix OBE, The late former Civic Mayor, Chair of Council and Freeman of the Borough Les Eytle and present Chair of Council Obajimi Adefiranye have contributed much to Civic life in Lewisham. Likewise, the late Asquith Gibbes MBE, the first Principal Race Equality Officer in the Borough who chaired Lewisham Community Police Consultative Group for 18 years. Asquith worked closely with the late Andy Hawkins former Civic Mayor, Council Leader and Freeman of the Borough, to progress good race relations in Lewisham.
The Labour Party has a proud history of promoting representation of our diverse communities in both local government and in Parliament. In 1987 Diane Abbott, the late Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz and Lord Paul Boateng were elected as MPs for the Labour Party, representing an historic leap forward. Lord Boateng later became the first black Cabinet Minister in history when he was appointed as the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health in 2001, Labour’s Baroness Amos became the first black woman to be a Cabinet Minister when she was appointed as International Development Secretary, in 2007 she became the first ethnic minority person to lead the House of Lords.
Historically the Labour Party has always been at the forefront of tackling racial discrimination in the UK. In 1965 the Race Relations Act, now 50 years old, was passed, The Act outlawed discrimination on the "grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins" in public places. The Act was strengthened in 1968 by the Labour government making it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins - criminalising the everyday discrimination that used to see signs on rented houses saying 'No Irish, no blacks, no dogs'. It was again a Labour Government who strengthened protections by passing the 1976 Race Relations Act which outlawed racial discrimination and harassment in the work place.
In 1997 Labour’s Home Secretary Jack Straw commissioned the Public Inquiry in to the 1993 racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence by a gang of white youths. The inquiry found that the Metropolitan Police Service were institutionally racist and made recommendations for reform which have transformed policing. Though there is more to do.
In Lewisham the Labour Party works hard to promote diversity and equal opportunities. The Council is currently running a Civic Leadership Programme with Operation Black Vote. The programme pairs BME members of the public who are interested in becoming civic leaders with sitting Councillors who mentor them. This year one of the mentors is Cabinet Member for Community Safety Janet Daby who has previously mentored on the programme.
Our Executive Mayor Sir Steve Bullock has long demonstrated his commitment to building a diverse and cohesive society in Lewisham. To this cause he introduced the Young Mayor of Lewisham scheme to help stimulate the interest and participation of our young people to contribute to civic pride, social action and community safety in our Borough.
Lewisham has a great series of events on for Black History Month including children’s craft days, special film showings, quizzes, book readings and talks. For a full list of events please visit: http://www.lewisham.gov.uk/inmyarea/events/whats-on/Pages/black-history-month.aspx
There has been much progress towards equality in recent decades. Cllr Janet Daby states, “There is much more to do. Labour has in the past been at the forefront of pushing for equality and diversity, for representation across all communities, and in tackling discrimination. But there is much more that we can do”. Lewisham Labour will continue to champion fairness and equalities. If you care about this too, get involved and join us.