FIRST-CLASS HERO; Forty Years Ago This Man Changed the Face of Race Relations in Britain after Beating a Colour Bar on the Railways

The Mirror (London, England), July 15, 2006 | Go to article overview

FIRST-CLASS HERO; Forty Years Ago This Man Changed the Face of Race Relations in Britain after Beating a Colour Bar on the Railways


Byline: By ROS WYNNE-JONES

AT FIRST glance, there is nothing unusual about this photograph. But the train guard waiting to check passengers' tickets has been forced to fight a legal battle for the right to wear his uniform.

Astonishingly, in the 60s there was a colour bar at Euston Station in London, banning black people from jobs where they might meet the public.

And it was this man, Asquith Xavier, who took on British Railways and the unions to smash it exactly 40 years ago today. He was Britain's version of Rosa Parks, an Alabama seamstress whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man was a key moment in the fight for civil rights in America.

Although 1966 was a relaxed World Cup summer of mini-skirts and pop music, Euston was still bound by rules and attitudes that would not have been out of place in the Victorian era.

Hailed as a "Rail Pioneer" in the Daily Mirror, Asquith's victory led to the strengthening of the Race Relations Act and the creation of the Commission for Racial Equality.

It also led to a full and independent inquiry into discrimination inside British Rail, which found that colour bars were in place in several London stations from Camden to Broad Street.

Yesterday Asquith's sister-in-law Agatha Xavier remembered a gentleman who never sought confrontation. "He was a kind, honourable man," she says. "He was so honest. But he also refused to accept being treated differently because of his colour. We are all very proud of him."

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, explains why Asquith's actions were so important. "Asquith's stand against discrimination brought to light the inadequacy of early race discrimination laws and persistent widespread discrimination faced by ethnic minorities," he says.

"People who, like him, were willing to speak out against racist policies brought about changes to the way we live, changes which underpin today's multiethnic Britain and led us to become the envy of other countries."

Asquith was 46 and had come to Britain from Dominica, the largest of the Windward Isles in the eastern Caribbean. He had started work for the then British Railways in 1956 as a porter, working his way up to rail guard at Marylebone station, where there was no colour bar.

He applied for a transfer to Euston, which would have meant a pay rise of pounds 10 to pounds 50 a week. But, as the Daily Mirror reported, there was an agreement between British Rail officials and staff at Euston that black people would not be allowed jobs where they met the public.

"Coloured people could have jobs as cleaners and labourers, but not as guards or ticket collectors," we revealed.

In the United States it had been 11 years since Rosa Parks, 42, had refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Her arrest and trial for this action - seen as civil disobedience - led to the Montgomery bus boycott, engineered by Martin Luther King.

By 1966 the US civil rights movement was giving way to Black Power in the wake of violent reprisals against activists.

BRITAIN, too, was struggling to change. In 1945 the country's non-white residents had numbered the low thousands. By 1970 there were around 1.4 million - a third of them born in the United Kingdom.

After the Second World War there were severe labour shortages as Britain rebuilt itself, and Commonwealth citizens were encouraged to come to the UK.

Modern immigration was born on June 22, 1948, with the arrival of the ship Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks, carrying 492 Jamaicans. Companies such as London Transport, the NHS and other organisations actively recruited in the West Indies.

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