There is a view that the disabled people’s movement (DPM) in Britain learnt much of its principles in the 1960s from the Black people’s civil rights movement in the USA. The difficulty we have is in finding any evidence to support this theory. To be fair, there is little surviving evidence of the DPM in the 1960s in the archives or in textbooks, so it might have been an influence.
But the evidence that does survive from the disabled people’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s does show direct links with and learning from the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). The AAM was the name of a strong and progressive formal organisation of radical anti-racists, people of colour and allies, based in London.
An explanation of the focus in Britain on the AAM rather that the USA civil rights movement is perhaps best explained by the history of British colonialism, the British Empire.
Starting in the 1920s with Egypt and Guyana, by the 1950s the movements for national independence of colonised countries was unstoppable, characterised by the ‘winds of change’ speech. India and Pakistan had won their independence in the 1940s, and countries in East Africa were following – Kenya and Uganda for example – but Rhodesia and South Africa were examples of White minority rule holding out against democracy and Black majority rule. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe on liberation, but South Africa had left the British Empire following the earlier Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and the white minority held out the longest in resisting democracy, creating its racist Apartheid regime of oppression.
Looking at the materials that survive from the disabled people’s movement in the 1960s, we can consider the following:
1. In Paul Hunt’s journal from 1962 much of his interest is in the non-violent civil disobedience of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). This is the era of the Cuban missiles crisis, of the Aldermaston marches and mass rallies and arrests in Trafalgar Square. His journal does not explicitly mention the Black people’s civil rights movement.
2. In the records from the 1960s of the National Campaign for the Young Chronic Sick (NCYCS) is Mike Gerrard, an activist on its executive committee and also active on the executive committee of the AAM. The AAM archive is at the Bodleian Library in Oxford (also online) which includes a transcribed interview where he also talks briefly about NCYCS.
3. In the 1970s one of the founders of UPIAS (Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation) was Vic Finkelstein, a disabled man who was a political refugee from South Africa, where he had been imprisoned in the 1960s for helping Black people resist the apartheid regime. When he fled to London he was involved in the AAM first and said it was a few years later that he started to develop his political thinking around disability politics. He was at the centre of the early discussions that led to the social model of disability. He had previously been in Britain for a year in the 1960s, staying at Stoke Mandeville hospital for treatment for the first year after he broke his neck.
4. The AAM was particularly active in organising boycotts and disrupting South African sports teams that tried to play in Britain. This was mostly about rugby and cricket matches, but it also included disabled people’s sports. In particular was the demonstration by disabled people outside the Stoke Mandeville international games in 1983, and the high-profile boycott of the event by radical disabled athletes including Bernard Leach, a swimmer from the radical Manchester Disabled Athletes sports club, which made the national newspapers. The surviving documents of this event credit the work of the AAM Health Committee in helping organise and publicise the protests.
Thus, from a fragile base of evidence which needs to be further researched, the early findings show links between the disabled people’s movement and the Anti-Apartheid Movement’s struggle, as a stronger research narrative than links to the Black people’s civil rights movement in the USA.
Historical stories can be fragile. I suspect that if history had a smell, it would be popcorn. Much of our sense of our many pasts, our various heritages, and from these our shared stories of who we are, comes not from books but from Hollywood. And Hollywood narratives are not a good guide to the radical British histories.
Some further reading: