The Bristol Bus Boycott

... was a protest against the policy of the Government–owned Bristol Omnibus Company, not to employ "coloured" people as bus crew (despite a reported shortage of labour). The company claimed that the policy was driven by Union demands, while the TGWU claimed that their concern was not race but the appearance of a new competitive source of labour. Bristol had a population of approximately 3,000 BAME people at the time.

Four young West Indian men – Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown – formed an action group, which was later named the West Indian Development Council. They engaged Paul Stephenson, an articulate local community worker whose father was from West Africa, as their spokesman. Stephenson set up a test case to prove that the colour bar existed, by arranging an interview with the bus company for Guy Bailey, a young warehouseman and Boys' Brigade officer. When Stephenson told the company that Bailey was West Indian, the interview was cancelled.

The activists announced their boycott at a press conference on 29 April 1963. The following day they claimed that none of the city's West Indians were using the buses and that many white people supported their action. In an editorial, the Bristol Evening Post pointed out that the TGWU opposed the apartheid system in South Africa and asked what trade union leaders were doing to counteract racism in their own ranks. It was also pointed out that London Transport had employed a large number of "coloured" workers and that this had led to a dwindling of white labour.

Students from Bristol University marched in protest; and Prime Minister Harold Wilson, prompted by local MP Tony Benn, spoke out against the colour bar at an Anti–Apartheid Movement rally in London. Learie Constantine, a former West Indian Test cricketer serving as High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago joined the protest, and Paul Stephenson spoke out to reporters at Bristol's County Cricket Ground, where the West Indies touring party happened to be playing Gloucestershire during the first week in May. But the West Indies team refused to publicly support the boycott, saying that sport and politics didn't mix.

The dispute was eventually resolved on 27 August, when a mass meeting of 500 bus workers agreed to end the colour bar. The following day the company announced the end of its policy of discrimination; and coincidentally, this was the day that Martin Luther King made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, DC. On 17 September, Raghbir Singh became Bristol's first non–White bus conductor. A few days later he was joined by two Jamaicans and two men of Pakistani origin.

The Bristol Bus Boycott has been credited with hastening the enactment of a Race Relations Act in 1965 (making racial discrimination unlawful in public places) and the Race Relations Act of 1968, which extended the provisions to housing and employment.

In 2009, Paul Stephenson (who had won libel damages against the TGWU's local Regional Secretary in December 1963) was appointed OBE, along with Guy Bailey and Roy Hackett. Four years later, Unite (the successor to the TGWU) issued an apology for the union's stance at the time, describing it as "completely unacceptable."

© Haydn Thompson 2022