Rock Against Racism 1978
In the Late 1970s there was a resurgence of far-right Fascist groups the National Front and the British Movement bringing aggressive anti-immigration and racist violence onto the streets of the UK. Musically Punk and Reggae were very much in evidence and an unlikely at first alliance grew between the two forms and their fans. I remember many gigs at the time where Punk and Reggae bands played on the same bill.
In Birmingham as well as the well-known Steel Pulse (Handsworth Revolution) we had Afrikan Star who rehearsed for a time in the office I shared with Derek Bishton and John Reardon in Handsworth and Birmingham was where The Beat also started while in Coventry there was Two Tone with bands like The Selector and The Specials, who, like the The Beat were cross-cultural.
And it was in Birmingham where two events in the rise of Fascism occurred – on 20 April 1968 Enoch Powell gave his notorious anti-immigration “Rivers of Blood” speech and then in August 1976 Eric Clapton (who ought to have known better) endorsed Powell with a drunken rant on stage at The Odeon wich included “get the foreigners out, get the wogs out, get the coons out”, and then repeatedly shouting the National Front slogan “Keep Britain White.”
Fortunately, this was to be the catalyst for a new anti-Fascist movement called Rock Against Racism which used cultural events and gigs to spread the word. Then in 1977 the Anti-Nazi League was launched by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Rock Against Racism also had links to the SWP but the effective brand of cultural and direct action helped to develop wide support for the anti-Fascist cause and both organisations beyond the usual influence of the far left.
Perhaps the most notable events of the time was when both organisations combined to organize the Rock Against Racism/Anti-Nazi League Carnivals in April and September of 1978. The first one on the 30th April was a mass March of at least 100,000 people from Trafalgar Square in London to Victoria Park in Hackney.
Along the way flat-bed lorries carried effigies of the main Fascist leaders and Punk and Reggae bands and at Victoria Park there was a line-up that included Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson, X-Ray Specs, Sham 69, Poly Styrene and The Clash.
I was there on the day with many friends as we walked the seven miles to Victoria Park and then were completely exhausted by then walking a further 3 or 4 miles back to North London.
These pictures sat in my archive virtually unseen from then until about 40 years later Jez Collins of Birmingham City University and the Birmingham Music Archive put the producers of a film about Steel Pulse in touch. They were going to use some of the pictures but sadly the film was never finished.
Rubika Shah then directed a wider documentary about Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League called White Riot which does feature a handful of these images together with those of Syd Shelton, Red Saunders (both co-organisers of the Carnivals) and Virginia Turbett. See www.modernfilms.com/whiteriot
With the current rise of anti-migrant and racist rhetoric maybe it’s time to re-visit such powerful cultural and political action.
Brian Homer August 2022