In late October, Kemi Badenoch took to the dispatch box in the House of Commons during a parliamentary debate about Black History Month to offer a scathing denouncement of “politicized” education, critical race theory and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The UK Minister for Women and Equalities insisted that, “Our history is our own, it’s not America’s. Too often those who campaign against racial inequality import wholesale narrative and assumptions that have nothing to do with this country’s history and have no place on these islands.” She doubled down on this point by insisting, “Most Black British people who came to our shores were not brought here in chains but came voluntarily due to their connections to the UK and in search of a better life.” Drawing on her own family history and evoking the story of Tom Molineux – the formerly enslaved African American prize-fighter who found fame in Britain in the early nineteenth century – Badenoch concluded that, “…this is a country that welcomes people and that Black people from all over the world have found this to be a great and welcoming country.”
Badenoch’s words speak to the outright refusal of the British government to grapple seriously with the legacies of the slave trade and empire, or to address institutionalized racism in Britain today. Moreover, her insistence that it is misleading to draw links between the racial histories of the US and UK is effectively a call for inaction that works to simultaneously fetishize the nation’s supposedly liberal values while arguing that racism is always worse somewhere else. While Badenoch is right that racism plays out differently in different geographical contexts, she ignores the complex ways in which struggles for racial justice are connected across national boundaries.
Indeed, just over sixty years before the Minister’s speech decrying these trans-Atlantic comparisons – on the 28th May 1959 – the African American writer, anthropologist, and activist Eslanda Goode Robeson took to the stage of St Pancras Town Hall in London to decry the recent murder of Kelso Cochrane on the streets of West London and to denounce race prejudice as a global problem.
Born in Antigua, Kelso Cochrane travelled to Britain in 1954 in search of economic opportunity and with dreams of becoming a lawyer. The 32-year-old had made his home in Notting Hill, where he shared a flat with his fiancée Olivia Ellington, and worked as a carpenter. On the night he was murdered, he was walking home late after receiving treatment at Paddington General Hospital for a thumb injury he had sustained at work. As Kelso turned onto Southam Street, just before 1 am, he was confronted by a gang of white youths. After a brief tussle, he slumped to the ground. He had been stabbed in the chest with a stiletto knife and later died in hospital. No one was ever charged with his murder.
Robeson was clear on what motivated this horrific attack. “I believe that Kelso Cochrane died because he was colored”, she asserted, “He died because of racial prejudice and hatred.” However, Eslanda also believed that Cochrane’s violent death was a symptom of a much broader problem. Delivering her address a year after ‘race riots’ had erupted in West London and Nottingham, she compared anti-Black racism to a contagious virus that moved across borders, stoking different forms of intolerance and distorting social relations around the world. “Prejudice and hatred,” Eslanda declared, “are dangerous, destructive, contagious diseases. They spread rapidly and widely, infect many people and communities, and poison human relations.” Extending the metaphor, she insisted that, “Like other dangerous, destructive and contagious diseases, prejudice and hatred must be exposed, studied, effectively treated; and the anti-social conditions which breed them must be corrected.” 1 Eslanda Robeson drew on her intimate knowledge of racism at home in the United States, as well as her engagement in struggles for colonial liberation, to expose how racism operates across national borders. In addressing the murder of Kelso Cochrane, she made it clear that race relations in the US and Britain are bound together by interrelated forces of imperialism and white supremacy that have shaped social relations in both countries.
Eslanda had arrived in Britain a year before Cochrane’s untimely death and was living in London’s Connaught Square with her husband – the world-renowned singer, actor and activist, Paul Robeson. Prior to this, for eight long years, the Robesons had been confined to the US after State Department officials refused to reissue their passports. Their activism, and in particular their vocal criticism of America’s foreign policy and close relationship with the colonial powers of Europe, had led to the couple being targeted by anticommunist forces and a government scared of the “diplomatic embarrassment” they might cause if they were allowed to travel overseas.
As McCarthyite hysteria eased, and the Robesons regained their passports, they immediately set off for Britain so Paul could once again pursue professional engagements abroad. The couple were no strangers to the country, having lived in London between 1928 and 1939. During this earlier sojourn, Eslanda studied for a Masters in Anthropology at the London School of Economics, meeting a vibrant community of radical activists from the Caribbean, Africa and South Asia who greatly influenced her anticolonial politics and prompted her to further embrace her African heritage.
On her return to London, Eslanda reacquainted herself with old friends and activists. One of these individuals was the Trinidadian-born activist Claudia Jones, who the Robesons had first met in New York City, where she was a key leader in the Communist Party USA. Jones’s radical activism meant she too was targeted by the anticommunist hysteria of the era and she was jailed in 1955 for violating the Smith Act. Released from prison early due to ill-health, she was deported under the McCarren Act later that year and departed for London on the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner.
As the scholar Carole Boyce Davies has detailed, Claudia Jones turned the state harassment she faced into a political opportunity – founding London’s first major Black newspaper The West Indian Gazette – and working with the local Caribbean community to challenge anti-Black racism in Britain. Indeed, she was a key organizer of the St. Pancras Meeting to protest Kelso Cochrane’s murder and had invited Eslanda to speak. Entitled “We Mourn Cochrane”, the gathering itself was organized by the Inter-Racial Friendship Coordinating Council (IRFCC) with the aim of helping to fund Cochrane’s funeral and to further coordinate the political efforts of the assembled activists. Alongside Eslanda, speakers included Labour and Conservative members of parliament, the anticolonial activist David Pitt, and the Deputy Prime Minister of the West Indies Federation Carl La Corbiniere. As the historian Kennetta Hammond Perry has argued, the protests that erupted after Cochrane’s murder represented a public challenge to the state in that it drew attention to the government’s failure to protect its Black citizens, while also making transnational connections – most notably to racial violence in the US and independence movements in the Caribbean – that challenged myths about supposed British “tolerance” and “justice”.
Eslanda Robeson’s activism in Britain offers a timely reminder that the struggle against racism must be globally oriented. By their very nature, systems of racial oppression – empire, colonialism, white supremacy – have always crossed national borders, while Black activists have long responded in kind. At a time when there is renewed resistance to think deeply about race in Britain today, Robeson’s words and the circumstances in which they were delivered resonate as a compelling warning against the dangers of seeing ‘real’ racism as something that is located beyond our own borders. As she mourned Kelso Cochrane, Eslanda made it clear that anti-Black racism – regardless of where it took place – was a collective concern, especially as it was related to and fueled hatred against other minority groups. Furthermore, she had a clear warning for white people in Britain and the nation more broadly. Alluding to the geopolitical shifts set in motion by decolonization in Asia and Africa, Eslanda insisted that, “No people anywhere can afford to permit prejudice and hatred to grow and spread – particularly no white people – no matter how rich and powerful – can afford to permit racial hatred to continue in the world in which the majority of the population is colored. While it is true that in Notting Hill, and in Britain, the colored population is in the minority. It is equally true that in Africa and Asia – just around the corner in our One World – the white population is the minority.”
The death of Kelso Cochrane offers a compelling counterpoint to Kemi Badenoch’s narrative of racial understanding and acceptance in Britain. This incident cruelly exposed Britain’s supposedly liberal values as a myth, while also demonstrating how an earlier generation of activists worked to connect anti-racist movements around the world and to think about the struggle for racial justice as a global demand. If these connections were recognized and people came together to challenge racism wherever that may be, Eslanda concluded, Kelso Cochrane “will not have died in vain.”
- ‘Kelso Cochrane Memorial Meeting’, 28th May, 1959. Box. 14. Eslanda Robeson Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C. ↩