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    Breaking the ‘colour bar’: Len Johnson, Manchester and anti-racism

    Hirsch, Shirin and Brown, Geoff (2023) Breaking the ‘colour bar’: Len Johnson, Manchester and anti-racism. Race and Class: a journal of racism, empire and globalisation, 64 (3). pp. 36-58. ISSN 0306-3968

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    This article explores the overturning of the ‘colour bar’ in a Manchester pub in 1953. Led by Black boxer and Communist Len Johnson, the resistance and ultimate success in breaking the ‘colour bar’ tells much about Black agency, the relationship between anti-racism and the Communist Party, and the making and unmaking of race in modern Britain. The essay outlines Johnson’s life up until 1953 and the history of the ‘colour bar’ in Britain that shaped Johnson’s career trajectory. In Britain, formal ‘colour bars’ existed, like that in boxing, but it was far more common for informal ones to operate that were only revealed through resistance to individual impositions. In the post-war years, Johnson spent much of his time challenging these unwritten ‘colour bars’ in Manchester as well as creating a new and explicitly anti-racist space, the ‘New International Club’. Such actions were part of a vibrant and dynamic politics led by Black activists in 1940s and 1950s Manchester. This piece shows how Johnson’s Communist Party membership was both central to Johnson’s activism, which included hosting Paul Robeson in Manchester to the consternation of the Pan-Africanists, as well as how the Party itself held back on its commitment to fighting for racial equality.

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