Campaign For Windrush Day Is Part Of Our Long History of Race Equality And Social Justice
It has been a long journey since 2010 when I wrote an article in the Guardian arguing that we would have failed as a nation if, by 2018, there was still no substantive recognition for the Windrush generation on the 70th anniversary of their arrival in Britain.
I called for a public holiday very similar to Martin Luther King Day in USA to celebrate the Windrush Generation and all post WW2 migration to Britain. Over the last several years I have been able to convince and work in partnership a range of individuals and organisations from the trade union movement, faith leaders, politicians and celebrities to support the campaign for a call to action for a national Windrush Day on 22 June, the anniversary of the arrival of the MV Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in 1948.
The central message of the campaign is that many aspects of British society today would be unrecognisable without the contributions that immigration and integration have made: from the NHS to the monarchy, our language, literature, enterprise, public life, fashion, music, politics, science, culture, food and even humour.
Who would have then imagined in 2018 that the whole issue of the Windrush Generation would become a major news story or foreseen the political fallout as British Citizens of Caribbean heritage, many of whom have spent most of their lives in the UK, lost their rights, homes, livelihoods and even their life as result of the Home Office ‘hostile environment policy’. A policy which saw British citizens treated as illegal immigrants: facing deportation or being refused re-entry into Britain after coming back from holiday.
The Windrush Scandal is another episode of Britain’s history of racism. People forget the climate this comes in: in the 1940s, black people were banned from buying or renting houses, paid far less than their white co-workers and discriminated against and bullied in the workplace, as well as harassed by the police. We must remember Learie Constantine taking Imperial Hotel to court in Central London for discrimination during the height of WW2. This “colour bar” was the catalyst for riots in Notting Hill and Nottingham in the 1950s.
In the 1960s, Paul Stephenson organised a boycott to force the Bristol bus company to stop discriminating against black people and Asquith Xavier took British Rail to court after being refused a job at Euston Station. That is why, since 1965, we have had a series of legislation and government bodies tackling structural racism and discrimination due to the campaigning efforts of the Windrush generation.
By the 1970s, black men were regularly stopped and searched, despite not being suspected of any crime, simply because of their race under “sus” laws; the toxic legacy of this continues today.
In the 1980s we had riots in Brixton, Tottenham, Bristol and Toxteth, where young black people rebelled against the police, discrimination and mass unemployment. The 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence led to major changes in race relations law.
But what’s happening to the Windrush children – including the government destroying or misplacing the Landing Cards - constitute an important and vital part of black history. However, one of the positive consequences of this scandal has been has been a massive media and public education history lesson on the arrival of MV Empire Windrush.
Ironically, the public have learned more about Empire Windrush and the Windrush Generation during April 2018 than in the previous 50 years. In 2018, as part of 70th anniversary, we as nation have failed in creating substantive recognition the contribution of the Windrush Generation and other migrant communities who see themselves as British.
With the government announcing this week that Windrush Day is national day of public recognition of the Windrush Generation and their descendants we still must recognise this is a positive step even though many may see as political cover or sop by Theresa May. What is disappointing that the government did not consider the wider recognition of all migrants who have made Britain ‘Great’ especially after WW2 which makes Windrush Day potentially less inclusive.
Also, Windrush Day exists in the current context of hostile immigration environment and the rights of the children of the Windrush Generation have still not been fully resolved. For Windrush Day to be successful and valued we still need to campaign and change the government policy on immigration and citizenship and celebrate all migration especially as we move towards Brexit.
Nevertheless, the 70th anniversary on Empire Windrush still provides a chance to reach across our many different ethnic, faith and family heritages, to reject prejudice and intolerance, and to shape a fair and inclusive future that we all want to share. Windrush Scandal is a wake-up-call for all of us on the issue of race and Britishness. We now need to work towards the 75th anniversary of Windrush to right the wrongs of the past and create a permanent legacy for future generations of an inclusive Britain where Windrush Day becomes a public holiday for all migration.
With the government supporting a national Windrush Day it is now time for other public and private bodies to step up to the plate to acknowledge Windrush Generation and migration. Please support my campaign for Royal Mail to produce series of com-memorative stamps.
Patrick Vernon OBE is a social commentator, Trustee of Bernie Grant Archives, and Editor 70th Anniversary Windrush Commemorative Magazine