Redemption songs

Rock Against Racism, which inspired Live Aid and helped forge multicultural Britain, is documented i

On 30 April 1978, more than 80,000 people took part in a "Rock Against Racism" carnival in Victoria Park, east London. They were protesting at the rise of the far-right National Front, which was then making headway in the polls and on the streets. It proved to be a seminal moment, drawing many white youngsters away from racist propaganda, radicalising a generation, and paving the way for concerts such as Live Aid. The veteran anti-fascist campaigner Gerry Gable describes it as "one of the most important cultural events of the postwar period".

The carnival was the high point of an extra ordinary protest by Rock Against Racism (RAR) and the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in response to the turbulent racial politics of the late 1970s. Who Shot the Sheriff?, a documentary by Alan Miles that will be screened at the Glastonbury Festival this summer, shows how the movement was sparked by an Eric Clapton concert in Birmingham in 1976 at which, to the dismay of black fans such as the future author Caryl Phillips, the guitarist urged his audience to back Enoch Powell's anti-immigrant stance.

The photographer Red Saunders and designer Roger Huddle penned a furious response in the New Musical Express: "Half your music is black. You're a good musician, but where would you be without the blues and R'n'B? We want to organise a rank-and-file movement against the racist poison in music. We urge support for Rock Against Racism." Quoting the song by Bob Marley, which Clapton had covered, the letter ended with the scathing postscript: "Who shot the sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you!"

In May 1977 the anti-apartheid campaigner Peter Hain, now a candidate for Labour's deputy leadership, Ernie Roberts (later a Labour MP) and Paul Holborow, a Socialist Workers Party activist, set up the Anti-Nazi League (ANL). Their aims - to undermine the credibility of the National Front and expose it as racist - keyed in to the preoccupations of the punk movement. Towards the end of the 1970s, the Clash and the Sex Pistols had aligned themselves with reggae, championing rock's black roots and undermining fascist attempts to woo white youths.

Saunders recalls the febrile atmosphere of the time. The National Front had knocked the Liberals into fourth place in that month's Greater London Council elections, winning 119,000 votes. In east London, Asians were being subjected to vicious assaults - 110 attacks between January 1976 and August 1978, culminating in the murder of Kennith Singh in Plaistow in April 1978. "It was an emergency. People were being attacked and murdered," Saunders says. "We were music fans looking for a way for ordinary kids who loved black music to have a voice. Out of that came a youth campaign that wasn't about boring old-fashioned politics, but harnessed the energy of new sounds like punk and reggae."

In August, the ANL took the controversial decision to confront the National Front on the streets, staging a huge demonstration that broke up an NF march through Lewisham. Meanwhile, RAR started organising gigs, starting at the Royal College of Art and culminating in the Victoria Park Carnival.

Today, it is standard for musicians to espouse anti-racist sentiments. At the time, however, the carnival organisers weren't sure they would find an appreciative audience. They were hoping to attract 20,000 people to Victoria Park with acts including the Clash, the Birmingham reggae stars Steel Pulse, the Tom Robinson Band and X-Ray Spex. They were delighted when more than four times that many came. "Black bands and white bands appeared on the same bill for the first time, not just at the carnival but at smaller gigs," says Red Saunders. "It was part of an enormous change in society that is still going on - multiculturalism from the roots up."

The racist threat did not go away, however, as recent electoral results for the British National Party testify. In response, the ANL is once again staging events under the banner of "Love Music Hate Racism". "We are starting from a stronger position than RAR did in 1978," says the organiser Lee Billingham. "We have got a multicultural music scene, which was more or less created by RAR, but this time our campaign has to be bigger and broader than it was in the 1970s. The far right has got more councillors than at any time in British history; racism in the form of anti-asylum-seeker prejudice and Islamophobia is on the rise. The fascists have reinvented themselves as respectable men in suits and ties."

What did Rock Against Racism mean to you?

Peter Hain, ANL co-founder, now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

"The carnival was a complete watershed, a fusion of popular culture and politics that had not been achieved before and that has only since come close with the Free Nelson Mandela concert at Wembley a decade later.

"I thought it was the critical blow against the National Front. It mobilised a generation of young people - students, schoolchildren and others, especially working-class kids. I remember vividly at that carnival punks and skins coming out against the Nazis. It was a dangerous time, and it could have gone the other way. I think it was decisive in running the NF out of town and it helped create a climate in which being racist was not acceptable."

Tom Robinson, one of the headline acts at Victoria Park, now a broadcaster on BBC 6 Music

"RAR started off as a grass-roots thing for ordinary pub bands like us, but when the ANL and Socialist Workers Party came along, it became a mass movement. Not everybody agreed with the SWP, but you have to credit their willingness to organise and fight. We didn't expect the carnival to be so big, and in fact the PA system wasn't strong enough, but seeing bands like the Clash and Steel Pulse close up was pretty damn good.

"There was a triumphalist feeling about the event. Never before had so many people been mobilised for that sort of cause. It was our Woodstock. People who previously felt isolated realised that thousands of others felt the same and it gave them the strength to go back to their schools or workplaces and confront the racists and their gut-wrenching jokes. In 1977 and 1978 there was a great danger of the NF becoming a credible political party, and if things like the RAR and ANL carnival had even a small effect in countering them, it was worth it."

Billy Bragg, singer-songwriter (below)

"I was 19 at the time and came across from Barking, where the National Front was very active. I happened to be standing near lots of gay men, and when Tom Robinson sang 'Glad to be Gay' they all started kissing. That really blew me away. You didn't get many openly gay men in Barking then.

"It really made me think what the whole event was about, because the fascists didn't just hate black people, they hated anyone who was different. So that day I took a pledge to be different, to question authority, to dress the way I wanted to and write songs I wanted to.

"The Clash exemplified solidarity with black culture with their reggae songs, and to add gayness to the mix was incredible. We felt we were part of a movement. In the early days, punk could have gone either way - the Sex Pistols wore swastikas and there was flirting with the right - but Joe Strummer, the Clash and RAR pointed the way forward to the barricades.

"Looking back at it, there's a direct link between the carnival and the huge Free Nelson Mandela concert at Wembley years later, because Jerry Dammers who organised that was inspired by Victoria Park. The whole Two Tone thing was a vindication of RAR."

Don Letts, DJ and film-maker (below left, with Joe Strummer of the Clash)

"Racism was totally in-your-face then. If I wasn't being chased by the National Front I was being stopped by the police using the 'sus' laws. The Clash and the Sex Pistols grew up with black people living next door and I bonded with those guys as friends through our love of black music. We came together through an understanding of our differences. So punk and RAR were immeasurably important at street level because they created a mutual respect.

"The crucial difference between then and now is that we set out to be anti-establishment, but now bands immediately want to be part of the establishment. But I'm a great believer in youth smashing up what's gone on before, and I think we're overdue something like that.

"Funnily enough, I didn't go to Victoria Park, even though I was involved in DJing at RAR gigs, because Joe Strummer had taken my girlfriend at the time and I was in a huff. Now, every time I see the clip of the carnival in the film Rude Boy I kick myself for not being there."

Isaac Julien, film-maker

"The National Front was active at my school. Growing up in east London, it was very important for me to identify with a popular movement that was about more than posturing and slogans. The ANL used music as a powerful catalyst and the various bands that came out of the period were at the forefront of discussing an experience that I felt was my own.

"I used the Victoria Park Carnival as a backdrop to my film Young Soul Rebels because I wanted to draw a counter-history to the more conventional one we have about that period, that talks only about the Queen's silver jubilee. Those events had personal significance because it was a time when aesthetics, politics, the left and the energy of youth culture were synthesised."