As part of Black History Month at Central Library, I have decided to make use of the outstanding collection of archives in the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, as well as other archives here at the library, to deliver a narrative on race in sport. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah was a Bangladeshi school boy who was brutally murdered in a Manchester playground, as retaliation for Ahmed’s desire to defend Asian boys when they were attacked. The Resource Centre, set up in his honour, has become one of one Europe’s leading specialist libraries on migration, race and ethnicity, and has a range of titles available to loan. I would certainly recommend exploring the Centre, with material spanning decades available for research or interest to anyone with a library card. Find out more about the Centre, and other Archives available here at Central Library, by clicking here.

Posters from the magazine ‘Kick it Out’, one of a number of subject specific titles from the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre.

As I decided to focus my blog on the key trends of race in sport, one idea became particularly prominent: the power of sport, and the sporting world that follows, to unite as it divides. I found that sport can simultaneously ostracise a player for being different to the crowd, but can make another player feel accepted, as though the race barrier does not exist. Tommy Smith, the American athlete, captured this idea perfectly:

“If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro’.”

We are unable to fully utilize the power of sport to bring people together; sports stars merely provide success for an entity that we love, without being that entity. The person is merely a machine – easy to love or hate, but never appreciated on a human level. We therefore fail to surpass the self-imposed racial barrier, quashing the power on our tracks, pitches and courts to incite social change.

Len Johnson was quite possibly the best British boxer to never win a British title, and he begins our story. His skill and effort cruelly was unrewarded due to the ‘Colour Bar’ black boxers faced (rule 24 stated title contestants “…must have two white parents”). He fought prejudice for all of his adult life.

Len was born locally in Clayton, 1902, to an Irish mother and West African father. Len’s father made up part of the new black community forming around the Manchester Ship Canal, as Manchester began trading directly with new African colonies. Many such sailors courted and married white women. Len’s mother was said to have been disfigured permanently by a group of women as punishment for this. It was typical of the time for young black families to struggle in all aspects of life, not just socially:  “Wives had to find lodgings alone and hope they were not kicked out on discovery of black husbands.”

Len’s boxing career started in The Alhambra, a sporting club in Openshaw Manchester. He was impressed by the ruthless determination and spirit boxers exhibited, in spite of bloodied noses and bruised cheeks. Jack Smith gave Johnson his first chance in the ring.

His mother “hastily made him a pair of boxing shorts and bought a clothes line as a skipping rope,” and off he went to fight his maiden bout.

Len Johnson
“Strike a pose, Len!”

He then transferred to the ‘Boxing Booth in 1921, an environment synonymous with professional boxing. A booth would be erected by a boxer, who would have to fight a member of the public. A man, called the ‘barker’ or ‘spieler,’ would ask for a member of the public to attempt to fight three rounds with the boxer, to win a small monetary prize. Boxers, like Len, would be contracted for several months and follow the booth to new towns and cities.

By 1925, Len fought the reigning British Middleweight Champion twice, defeating the holder Roland Todd each time on points. This should have guaranteed Len a fight for the belt, but the infamous rule 24 denied him that chance.

It is particularly interesting to note here the perceived political and cultural implication of black men defeating white men in the ring; it would either become a symbol of instability in the colony or incite rebellion.

Article BHM Jacob
Len’s success was limited not by his sporting pedigree, but by the colour of his skin.

The ban was lifted in 1947, 14 years after Len had given up his dream to be acknowledged as the best British boxer, which he undoubtedly was.

While Len’s success could have acted as a beacon of change, signalling the beginning of Britons to live (and compete) equally, it instead gave fans and white competitors a reason to ignore black success. This therefore encouraged racial inequality, rather than forcing people to accept racial equality through the ring.

There are countless examples of sport being used as a weapon to endorse inequality, just like in Len’s case, but the ‘Moss Side Warrior,’ and his story, illustrates the power of sport for good.

Five times World Karate Champion, Geoff Thompson MBE employed his own life experiences to show young people from Moss Side an alternative path away from meaningless violence and crime. His parents were one of the first to answer the call to the Empire, and emigrated to Wolverhampton, where Geoff was born.

Geoff was young when his father died. He developed a ‘volcanic temper’ as a result, getting into fights and developing a reputation. But by 16, he found Karate.

A black belt within a year and a half, Geoff became the young junior in the senior national squad at 17. He later won multiple medals and championships, heralded as one of the most successful athletes in British karate history.

He founded a charity called the Youth Charter for Sport, Culture and Arts (YCS) in 1993, working in Moss Side to show mostly black young people, through sport and other schemes, a life away from the streets. He aims to show how anger can be used positively, through his experience of escaping gang culture for the discipline and grace of karate. An example of the charity’s work is the purpose built Moss Side Millennium Powerhouse youth centre, where Moss Side Powerhouse Library is housed.

Geoff Thompson
Geoff battled to become a sporting hero, and now fights to help disadvantaged youths see a route away from their turbulent environment.

Geoff’s story shows the power of sport to open doors for those on the fringes of society – he was an outsider at a time right at the beginning of the Windrush era, but was saved from the streets by sport. This is an example of sport not discriminating but promoting social inclusion and encouraging people to welcome diversity, celebrating together winning titles for our nation. It is a shame this power is not always utilized.

The football field similarly has the same power, used for good and bad.

West Bromwich Albion were the first club to regularly field three black players in the top flight. Dubbed the ‘Three Degrees’ by then-manager Ron Atkinson, Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis suffered vile torment by opposition fans. Batson recalls that the “National Front would be right there in your face” as they got off the coach to games, and how there would often be spit on his jacket.

Despite this, team-mate Ally Robertson remembers that “the three lads were our mates and we all used to stick together, so it was nothing to us,” in reference to the racial diversity in the squad.

These players were evidently accepted and rejected at the same time, showing how sport can breed both.

I believe, ultimately, that sport has such a great societal impact, to unite, divide and empower. History suggests that often sport is not used to it’s full positive potential, but Len, Geoff and countless others use sport to show there is not a race barrier, that skin colour is only skin deep.


‘Never Counted Out! The Story of Len Johnson’  by Michael Herbert

BBC article by Rob Howard, author of Len Johnson and the colour bar

‘BlaqSport’ edition one and ‘Kick it out’ magazines available to read in the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre

Guardian article West Brom’s ‘Three Degrees’. Online access to newspapers available from Manchester Libraries here.