A black and white glimpse of the past

The crowd, black and white, pounced on this vanguard of racism and inflicted on those reactionaries

Early on Sunday morning, 14 October, the writer Farrukh Dhondy, my friend of more than three and a half decades, phoned and invited me to turn to page 75 of the Sunday Times Magazine. Tucked away at the bottom of the page was a photo of a group of young black people assembled as part of a mighty throng. It was part of a six-page spread taken by the photojournalist Don McCullin, described in the piece as "the Charles Dickens of photography".

The caption of the photograph read: "New Cross 1977: anti-fascists address the crowd at the battle of Lewisham in south London." "They were excited because they realised that they'd defeated the National Front," McCullin notes.

Only one person on the platform was holding a loudhailer. It was me. I cannot remember being excited that August afternoon in 1977. Passionate? Yes. Pleasantly victorious? That, too.

That was 30 years ago. As I gazed at the picture, the mood and moment returned in a flood. A puny group of reactionaries and fascists under the banner of the National Front took the decision to mobilise the white working classes by marching boldly through the black community. Their confidence stemmed from a myth that black and Asian people were docile, if not imbecilic. Fewer than 300 responded to the call to march, military style, through New Cross with the cross of St George and the Union Flag. Thousands of us gathered to stop them. They had the police at their side: a militarised section of the Metropolitan Police that had built a reputation as vicious, baton-wielding thugs.

Nothing in the press had prepared the National Front and police for the ferocity of the ambush they encountered outside Goldsmiths College. Our reaction was spontaneous. The crowd, black and white, pounced on this vanguard of racism and inflicted on those reactionaries a merciless hiding. And how they ran away!

Flags were abandoned. NF members and their supporters scampered, tails tucked between their legs. They screamed and hollered.

We were not a rabble, just a group of Caribbean blacks who had been building communities of which we were justly proud. I knew the local turf well. I had been married a few years earlier at the Anglican church in Wickham Road, off Lewisham Way. My daughter (the first of my brood) saw the light of day at Lewisham Hospital. Our small community had developed a kinship. Perhaps not as strong as Brixton, but tight enough. I returned some years later to teach general studies at the South-East London Technical College. It was an all-black class of students who desperately needed remedial education to complement the trades they were being taught.

I recognised about half a dozen of my students in the photograph. They had responded in the way I would have hoped. That day I spoke about the right to defend our communities from racial attacks, from police attacks, from attacks in the press. The mood was sombre. It seemed to me that the black audience was coming to terms with the tremendous strides they had made at this moment.

They listened intensely and spoke in hushed tones only minutes after exploding on the stage of history. In the months following, the National Front returned to its mischief. In the spring of 1979, the NF turned its attention to Southall and 6,000 Asians came out to stop the Front from holding a meeting at the local town hall. All hell broke loose, but victory was marred by the murder of Blair Peach, an anti-fascist demonstrator.

No group can maintain that intense pace over an extended period of time. Solidarity has been replaced by internecine strife, suicide bombings and gun violence. But fragile shoots of the past will thrive once more. I await them.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?