British Racial Violence and Transatlantic Black Activism

Protest in London on June 6, 2020, after George Floyd’s murder (Socialist Appeal, Flickr)

February of this year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the killing of Rolan Adams, a Black British teenager who was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths in southeast London. The circumstances of his death are strikingly similar to that of Stephen Lawrence, another Black British teenager who was killed two years later and just a few miles away. Lawrence’s murder became a cause célèbre that led to a major police enquiry, a partial revocation of the British legal application of the double jeopardy rule, the creation of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust—a national educational charity focused on social justice and antiracist education—and most recently the formation of the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre, based at De Montfort University and headed by Dr. Kennetta Perry, a leading scholar of Black Britain. 

By contrast Adams’ death has almost completely disappeared from the public eye, despite its importance as a reminder of the unsavory history of racist violence against Black and other racialized minority communities across the United Kingdom and in southeast London specifically, during the late 1980s and early 1990s.For the purposes of this essay, however, I am less interested in the specific circumstances of Adams’ death than I am in the efforts of Black campaigners to draw attention to the injustice, and of one Black campaigner in particular, the Reverend Al Sharpton, a bombastic and controversial African American activist. Sharpton’s unlikely collaboration with grassroots activists in Britain reflected his ambitions to become a transnational race leader in the mold of activists such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Moreover, the extraordinary response to his arrival by the British press revealed entrenched and deeply racist patterns of news reporting, as well as an underlying fear that the preacher’s arrival heralded the encroachment of a distinctly American form of ‘race politics’ onto British shores.

While Sharpton was largely unknown to British audiences at the time of Adams’ murder, he had emerged as one of the most visible civil rights activists in the United States by the early 1990s. Over the preceding decade, Sharpton had been at the center of a string of high-profile protests in response to racially charged incidents such as the alleged rape and racist assault of Black teenager Tawana Brawley in 1987, and the murder of Yusef Hawkins, a Black teenager who was killed in 1989 by a mob of white youths in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst. To Sharpton’s admirers, he was a militant advocate for Black rights and a crusading Black leader who echoed the fire and fury of the Black Power era. To his detractors, he was a media-hungry “racial arsonist” who placed his own fame above the pursuit of better race relations. In 1991, Sharpton was stabbed in the chest by a white assailant as he prepared to lead another protest march in Bensonhurst. Occurring shortly after Adams’ murder, Sharpton’s own near-death experience was reported in the British media, and, sensing an opportunity to draw greater awareness to their cause, British activists reached out to the American. Sharpton agreed to help lead a protest march in southeast London, announcing to his American followers that he was “embarking on a trip to England to share, speak and listen to my people who suffer in Great Britain some of the same indignities, brutalities and murders that we suffer in these United States.”

Where Sharpton had featured in the British press prior to his 1991 tour, his representation had shifted between that of a cartoonish buffoon and a dangerous “race-hustler.” To readers of the Times and Telegraph, Sharpton was seen as a “rotund, roguish character” who was easily identifiable through his eye-catching outfits and signature gold medallion. Other papers were more severe, with the Daily Mail describing Sharpton as a “rabble-rousing liar” and a “professional black agitator.” When the British press got wind of Sharpton’s impending arrival, it reacted in horror. In an article titled “Keep This Man Out of Britain,” the Mail warned its readers to prepare for “the most odious man in America” whose appearance on British shores could present “a serious incitement to racial conflict.”1 Predictably, the most hysterical response emanated from right-wing outlets such as the Sun, which declared that Sharpton “preaches a gospel of hate against whites” and called upon the home secretary to bar his entry into the country. However, across the political spectrum, and irrespective of tabloid or broadsheet format, the British mainstream press appeared almost universally opposed to Sharpton’s visit.

This response was in large part dictated by the press’ willingness to frame systemic racism and racial violence as an American problem. British newspapers painted Sharpton as a recognizably Black but also unmistakable American “race crusader,” a figure unfamiliar with and ill-suited to the subtleties of British race relations, which allegedly depended upon “sensitivity, understanding, fairness, and calm.” Any minor slip-up or incident of cultural misunderstanding was seized upon by mainstream media commentators as evidence of Sharpton’s “bombastic [but] factually flawed” approach to racial justice, as well as his dislocation from the broader demands and concerns of minority communities in Britain.2 Where Sharpton did appear to have the support of Black British communities, particularly in southeast London, the press suggested that this support was less rooted in legitimate complaints than in a willingness to be drawn in by Sharpton’s showmanship. When prominent Black British figures such as Barrister John Taylor expressed concerns over Sharpton’s visit, they were widely praised for distancing themselves from an “American fanatic” and for understanding Adams’ murder for what it was, a tragic, but not racist, incidence of youth violence.

To be sure, Sharpton’s talents for generating publicity appeared to overshadow his actual knowledge of race relations in Britain, with the minister’s whirlwind tour exposing an often-cavalier attitude towards localized racial tensions and his flexible relationship to the truth. Prior to his arrival, Sharpton had trumpeted that “there had been no protest, no arrest, no indictments [and] no prosecution” relating to Rolan Adams’ case—assertions which ignored the speedy arrest of multiple suspects and the efforts of local groups to protest the killing.3 Similarly, despite Sharpton’s appeals to transnational Black solidarity, the minister often seemed more invested in enhancing his own celebrity. Before leaving the United States, Sharpton had penned a newspaper column suggesting that the impetus for his visit stemmed from British media coverage, and, upon his arrival, he enthusiastically set about reinforcing his reputation as a “wonderful media monster.” Sharpton’s confrontational relationship with the press threatened to deflect attention from Adams’ murder and led British antiracist periodicals such as Searchlight to dismiss him as “a shyster politician from New York.”4

Nevertheless, it is clear that Sharpton’s visit helped to draw greater media attention to Adams’ murder, something that arguably helped to shape subsequent media responses to the death of Stephen Lawrence several years later, and the commonalities which shaped the experiences of and connections between Black activists on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, the press’ vilification of Sharpton provides a useful window into a broader media-led backlash against multiculturalism and the so-called “race relations industry” that had gained traction during the Thatcher years and which continued to help shape popular attitudes towards and understanding of British race relations into the 1990s. Most significantly, the media backlash to Sharpton’s arrival exposed deeply rooted fears that a distinctly American ‘brand’ of race politics was taking root on British soil, and the receptiveness of Black British communities to a more confrontational model of racial justice. This receptiveness—denied on the pages of the mainstream press—can be tracked through Black British publications such as the Voice, which denounced the “frenzied press attack” that greeted Sharpton upon his arrival in Britain, and which contended that “a civil rights person is something we need in this country—someone who will stand up for us.”5

  1. “Sharp Suit and a Sharp Tongue,” Daily Telegraph, 25 February 25, 1988; “Racial Tensions Boil Over,” Sunday Times, 19 June 19, 1988; “Fact and Friction,” Daily Mail, 22 June 22, 1988“; “Jogger Case Lawyer Under Armed Guard,” Daily Mail, 20 August 20, 1990; “Keep This Man Out of Britain,” Daily Mail, April 25, 1991.
  2. “And Now From the Big Apple,” Telegraph, April 26, 1991.
  3. “Man Gets Life for ‘Racial’ Murder of Boy.” Times, October 17, 1991.
  4. “Editorial,” Searchlight, December 1991.
  5. “Sharpton,” Voice, April 30, 1991.
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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.