I chose this topic as part of my project for Archives+. I was interested in the colour bar and Len Johnson played a huge part in this topic. He is very inspiring and he himself is a very interesting person.
I chose the topic of Race Prejudice, using Len Johnson as an example, because I never really knew how England overcame the struggles of racism and discrimination against people of colour. Len Johnson was part of a group of contributors called The New International Society, who aimed to help people of colour gain the same rights as everyone else.
I felt Len Johnson was a perfect example as he joined a cause to help people of colour as he himself was discriminated against whilst in the boxing business and even though he served his country as part of the civil defence it made no difference to the fact that he was black. Len Johnson first came into the boxing business when his father asked him to take part in a boxing match, only a small, amateur one, but Johnson never wanted to box in the first place as he found the sport not to his liking. He took part anyway as going against his father’s wishes would have been a bad choice. He won with a knockout win in the third round and sealed his fate as a professional, middleweight championship boxer.
Many years later after fighting multiple times and receiving both losses and wins and after not being able to receive the British title, he retired. On the 30th September 1933, he fought against Eddie Pierce, a South African light heavyweight champion. An old recurring eye problem returned during the fight, closing his left eye completely, however he didn’t retire the fight as he was determined to carry on. In the first minute of the 12th round, the referee halted the match and gave the victory to Pierce. Soon later, on the 12th of October 1933, he fought against Jim Winters, a Scottish cruiser weight champion but sadly lost. Due to the injury of his left eye, which he still hadn’t recovered from, and if he continued fighting he could become blind, he was forced to retire. Johnson’s last fight was met with a loss.
Johnson later joined the war as a Civil Defender earning respect throughout his ‘squadron’ of sorts, he was a very brave and respectable man. After leaving the Civil Defence he became a bus driver, sadly having to retire from bus driving due to the unfortunate event where a young child ran in front of the bus resulting in the child’s death. Sadly, he never fully got over this event. After this he became a lorry driver, working for Jack Silverman in Oldham, later being promoted to Foreman, he retired from this job at age 70.
He joined the communist party and during this time, in early 1946, he helped to establish the N.I.S., an organisation aimed at fighting against racial discrimination, the colour bar as journalists called it. Multiple times they helped to oppose discrimination and they helped greatly to raising awareness. Johnson died on 28th of September 1974.
In my opinion Len Johnson was someone who helped to raise awareness to the discrimination of all people of colour, I think he did a great deal towards this topic: creating the N.I.S., attending the 5th Pan-African Congress, becoming a community leader in Moss Side, being a local civil rights activist and joining the Communist Party. Although there are negative connotations associated with the communist system (everyone is equal, no matter job, race or sex), it would still prove Johnson’s thought process of equality. The Pan-African Congress was a series of meetings all over Europe, their intention to address the issues that Africa faced due to the colonization of most of the continent by Europeans. Its demands included the end of colonial rule and racial discrimination, human rights and equality of economic opportunity.
- Boxer Len Johnson:
I chose to draw Len Johnson as a boxer because boxing was a huge part of his life, and was the beginning of his discrimination. By becoming a professional boxer, he couldn’t compete for a title and this was because of his colour.
- The Colour Bar
The actual physical representation of the colour bar.
I chose to draw a bar that’s been split into sections for different skin colours. This represents the ‘Colour Bar’, which basically means, ‘the segregation of people of different colour or race especially and barrier to black people participating in activities with white people’. Len Johnson was blocked from competing for a title due to his colour, which is black, connecting straight to this Colour Bar.
- Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson became a great friend of Len Johnson in his later years of life, after the war. Paul was a singer and civil rights activist, and when his passport was withdrawn in America, a campaign was organized called ‘Let Robeson Sing’ which Johnson helped to organise. Paul Robeson did sing, in 1949 in Moss Side to 20,000 people on the street!
Blog written by Ellis Adetoro
Len Johnson and The Colour Bar by Rob Howard
Never counted out! : the story of Len Johnson, Manchester’s black boxing hero and communist by Michael Herbert