‘Black women have been, and continue to be, integral in imagining a world where liberation isn’t the goal; it’s the default’.
Writer, activist and educator Altheia Jones-Lacointe is one of the great British Black activists and civil rights worker, and yet this name is hardly known amongst the Black community.
As Danialle Dash states in her article in the Stylist magazine:
“we should all know Dr Altheia Jones-LeCointe. In a perfect world, the British Black Panther (BBP) leader and community organiser would come to mind as easily as Angela Davis and other famous resistance leaders”.
Born Altheia Jones in Trinidad, she was one of the three daughters of Viola Jones, a Port of Spain dressmaker and clothes shop proprietor, and Dunstan Jones, the principal of a government school.
While studying in London, Jones-LeCointe became involved in community organising against racism and for the rights of people of African and Asian heritage in the UK. In London, she became concerned with the mistreatment of black and Asian people by the authorities and worked as a teacher and organiser in the Universal Coloured Peoples’ Association (UCPA).
Danielle Dash’s great piece goes on to explore her ‘White Washing’ from British history:
“Britain’s contribution to global structural racism and the suppression of Black liberation efforts leads to the erasure of important historical figures like Jones-LeCointe. The combination of her race and her gender make it easier for history to forget the important work Jones-LeCointe did to advance anti-racism legislation – not only for black people, but specifically for Black women”.
Having risen to leadership of the BPP after its founder Obi Egbuna the playwright/poet was jailed, Altheia Jones-LeCointe organised marches to show the world how UK police were brutalising British Blacks, especially at the Black-owned Mangrove restaurant.
She became the brains behind – the BPP movement. She re-energised the group, and her position created much-needed visibility for Black women.
Her name rightly rose to prominence again with the release of Steve McQeen’s Small Axe series of films, featuring the Mangrove Nine. Of the nine, only Jones-LeCointe and the late Darcus Howe (blog soon) made the decision to represent themselves in court. She wasn’t a lawyer, but she bravely faced the British legal system. Undoubtedly her defiance was just too powerful – she was charged with ‘conspiracy to incite a riot’.
They demanded to be judged by a ‘jury of peers’ — all Black jurors. Only two Black jurors were selected. They called more than 100 witnesses who spoke candidly about being terrorised by the police, cross-examined police officers, and asked their witnesses about their definition of ‘Black power’.
The judge’s closing statement put the nail in the police department’s case, saying, in part:
“What this trial has shown is that there is clearly evidence of racial hatred on both sides.”
Though, of course, the British Black Panthers in actuality could not be deemed racist, the statement was the first acknowledgement that Britain’s police officers targeted Black citizens.
The Action Committee for the Defence of the Mangrove read:
“This protest is necessary as all other methods have failed to bring about any change in the manner the police have chosen to deal with Black people.”
Dash points out:
That in 1970, Jones-LeCointe organised a demonstration to protest police mistreatment of The Mangrove. The demonstration was vastly over-policed, with 200 officers deployed for 150 demonstrators, and violence erupted. Jones-LeCointe was arrested along with eight others, who collectively became known as the Mangrove Nine.
Their aim was to tackle head-on the prejudice that had seen the national press depict their civil rights movement as nothing more than a violent gang of troublemakers. After what was at the time the longest trial in British history, the Mangrove Nine walked free, with the presiding magistrate Judge Clarke acknowledging ‘police wrongdoing and racial prejudice’.
The BPP movement worried authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, Jones-LeCointe was now a permanent target of the police, and government, her historical importance needed to be erased, not just by White but also some Black historians.
Despite Jones-LeCointe’s revolutionary work, her story was ignored when the time came to tell the story of British Black people’s contribution to the Black liberation movement. The disgraceful TV series Guerrille supposedly about Mangrove basically told women who look like Jones-LeCointe that it doesn’t matter what our achievements are: we are not worthy of starring in our own stories if we don’t have a proximity to Whiteness.
“Society regularly forgets black women exist – going so far as erasing us and our contributions from history. That’s exactly what happened with Jones-LeCointe’s representation on screen”.
A final point Danielle Dash makes in her article I believe speaks for all Black women:
“I admire and am thankful to Dr Altheia Jones-LeCointe because she did the work of dismantling the racist patriarchy at a time when doing so jeopardised her freedom. She paved the way for black women like me, who look the way we do and have the voices we have. She showed us it was possible to stand up to oppression – and succeed”.
Despite the record of LeCointe and others, all Black women activists, faced an uphill battle to not only be taken seriously as activists but to be given their due credit.
All of these women understood that a fight for liberation remains bigger than the individual; the fight for freedom is a collective effort. As we stated at the beginning, Black women have been, and continue to be, integral in imagining a world where liberation isn’t the goal; it’s the default.
Actress Letitia Wright talks about her Small Axe role: 4.02m
Mangrove Nine Documentary 1970: 11.50m