Turbulent Londoners: Olive Morris, 1952-1979

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past. Most of the Turbulent Londoners I feature are women, because their contribution to history has so often been overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Olive Morris, radical, activist, and organiser.


Olive Morris in 1973 at the squat she helped established at 121 Railton Road in Brixton (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

There has been a conscious effort over the last few years to ensure that black activists throughout history receive the attention they deserve. Olive Morris is one of those who has been the subject of concerted efforts to research and publicise her life and legacy. She was even featured on a Google Doodle on the 26th of June 2020, which would have been her 68th birthday. Olive was an accomplished and dedicated activist, who made significant contributions to the developing Black Power movement in Britain in the 1970s.

The Google Doodle celebrating Olive Morris, from the 26th June 2020 (Source: Google).

Olive Morris was born on the 26th of June 1952 in Jamaica. Her parents moved to London when she was young and in 1961, aged 9, she joined them in Lavender Hill. She left school without any qualifications, although she would later go on to study at the London College of Printing and the University of Manchester. The London that Olive grew up in was not welcoming or supportive of people like her; black and Asian people faced a racist police force, attacks by racist groups such as the National Front, and discrimination in education, employment, and housing. In this context Olive became a fierce and determined activist, campaigning against racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Her activism was intersectional; she believed that all forms of discrimination interact and overlap, and in order to fight one you must fight them all.

In 1969, at the age of just 17, Olive intervened in the arrest of a Nigerian diplomat in Brixton. The police did not believe that a black man could own such a nice car, so accused him of stealing it. Olive was physically and verbally abused by the police for standing up to them. She was also arrested, charged with assault on an officer, and fined £10 and given a 3 month suspended sentence.

At this time, Brixton was a hub for black political organisations, so Olive found no shortage of allies. In the early 1970s, she joined the youth section of the British Black Panther Movement. In 1974 she was a founding member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, which was formed to create a space for women who felt marginalised by the broader black freedom movement.

Olive began squatting in 1972, and quickly became very good at it. For her, squatting was a political act; she used it to draw attention to the fact that so many black people were homeless, despite good quality housing being available. In this way, she helped pioneer squatting as a form of activism. In 1973 Olive squatted 121 Railton Road in Brixton, which became an organising centre for community groups such as Black People against State Harassment. It was also home to Sabarr Bookshop, one of the first black community bookshops in Britain. Railton Road remained a squat and community centre.

Olive Morris scaling a building on the front cover of a handbook for squatters published in 1979 (Source: Lambeth Council).

Between 1975 and 1978, Olive studied economics and social studies at the University of Manchester. Whilst there, she was a member of the National Coordinating Committee of Overseas Students. Amongst other things, she helped campaign against raising tuition fees for overseas students. Olive saw this policy as a racist denial of British responsibilities to its former colonies. She was also a member of the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative (later the Abasindi Co-operative) and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group.

During and after her studies, Olive traveled extensively, using what she learnt to inform her activism back home. She also wrote and published on her experiences and politics. In 1978, Olive co-founded the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD), an umbrella movement which brought together other groups and activists. After graduating, Olive returned to Brixton and worked in the juvenile department of the Brixton Community Law Centre. Here, she campaigned against the controversial ‘sus’ laws, which allowed the police to stop and search people based solely on suspicion.

Olive fell ill whilst on holiday in Spain in 1978. On her return she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Treatment was unsuccessful, and she passed away on 12th July 1979, aged just 27. It was a tragic shock to her friends and family, and also a great loss to London’s activist communities. In 1986 a Lambeth Council building at 18 Brixton Hill was named after her; there is also a community garden and play are in Myatt’s Field dedicated to her. In 2008 the Remembering Olive Collective was set up to publicise and preserve her legacy; the materials they collected are now held at Lambeth Archives. In 2009, she was chosen by public vote to be one of the historical figures featured on the Brixton Pound, a local currency. In 2011, the Olive Morris Memorial Award was launched, which gives bursaries to young black women.

Olive Morris on the one Brixton Pound note. She was chosen by a popular vote to appear on the local currency (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Olive Morris was a dedicated, skilled, and strategic organiser and activist, who fought against discrimination in all its forms. During her short life she worked tirelessly to combat the disadvantages faced by black people in Britain and build networks of solidarity and mutual support. Some of these networks were specifically aimed at women, encouraging many women of colour to engage in politics for the first time. Olive is remembered as a local hero in Brixton, but her legacy goes much further than that. I somehow doubt she would be impressed by being featured in a Google doodle, but is a step towards the recognition she deserves.

Sources and Further Reading

Allotey, Emma. “Morris, Olive Elaine (1952-1979).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2012, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/100963

Barr, Sabrina. “Olive Morris: Google Doodle Honours Activist who Campaigned to Improve the Lives of the Black Community.” Independent. Last modified 26th June 2020, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/women/olive-morris-google-doodle-who-activist-black-police-london-a9586836.html

Osborne, Angelina. “Black History Month: The Power of Olive Morris.” Fawcett Society. Last modified 2nd October 2018, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/blog/black-history-month-power-olive-morris

Reilly, Felix. “‘Black women who have struggled to make our efforts possible’: Olive Morris and the Legacy of Black Power in Manchester.” History@Manchester. Last modified 13th October 2019, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://uomhistory.com/2019/10/13/black-women-who-have-struggled-to-make-our-efforts-possible-olive-morris-and-the-legacy-of-black-power-in-manchester/

Remember Olive Collective blog. Various dates, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://rememberolivemorris.wordpress.com/news-and-events/

Tsang, Amie. “Overlooked No More: How Olive Morris Fought for Black Women’s Rights in Britain.” The New York Times. Last modified 26th June, 2020, accessed 25th July 2020. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/obituaries/olive-morris-overlooked.html

Book Review: The Autonomous City- A History of Urban Squatting by Alexander Vasudevan

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The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting by Alexander Vasudevan.

Alexander Vasudevan. The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting. London: Verso, 2017. RRP £16.99 paperback.

Squatting has been a feature of Western urban protest since the mid-twentieth century, although it has enjoyed varying levels of popularity. Alexander Vasudevan is an Associate Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oxford who has written extensively on the geographies of squatting in academic publications. The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting brings Vasudevan’s research to a popular audience. The book details the history of squatting in an impressive number of Western cities: New York, London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, and Vancouver are all covered, as well as some Italian cities.

The Autonomous City is detailed and well-researched. The broad geographical range of the book is made even more impressive when you think about how many languages the research required a working knowledge of. Anglophone geographers are beginning to acknowledge the importance of researching other places, and acknowledging research from other cultures, but many of us lack the linguistic skills to put this into practice. As such, The Autonomous City‘s international outlook is a refreshing change.

Vasudevan convincingly argues that the history of squatting is about more than standing up to excessive rents and poor quality housing. It is also about creating an alternative city. Squatters imagine a way of life drastically different from how we live now, and bring it in to being by actually living it. In this way, they demonstrate that the way things are is not the only way that they can be, that an alternative way of life is possible.

Squatting is “a form of direct action that remained first and foremost a struggle over the right to be in the city and against the commodification of land and housing.”

Vasudevan, 2017: p.232

The Autonomous City is structured by city, which makes the narrative clear and easy to follow, but can get repetitive. In each case, Vasudevan traces the history of squatting in that city, highlighting key moments and individual squats. He dedicates two chapters to New York City, the first and the last, which brings a pleasing circularity to the book’s structure. There are clear links, similarities, and points of difference between the various cities that Vasudevan discusses, but he doesn’t make those links or draw comparisons, which feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Another omission that I find odd is the lack of images–there are no pictures. I understand that this may have been the publisher’s decision rather than the author’s, but they are noticeable by their absence, particularly in a book that is aimed at a more popular audience.

The Autonomous City is a well-researched, well-written book that will appeal to anyone with an interest in squatting, urban resistance, or radicalism. It will also appeal to those with an interest in urban history more generally, as it looks at one way in which urban form is negotiated and contested.