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Notting Hill in 1958 was a very different place from what it is now. Today known as an affluent and fashionable London suburb, Notting Hill in the 1950s was dilapidated, poor, overcrowded, and a stronghold of British fascist Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, as well as another Nazi group known as the White Defence League. At the same time, Notting Hill experienced an influx of immigrants from the West Indies following the end of the Second World War. By the ‘50s, the Union Movement and the White Defence League had inflamed tensions present between the white and black communities through racist slogans such as “Keep Britain White”, and hostilities continued to rise. Violent attacks on black people increased, particularly in 1958, with gangs of white youth committing a number of violent assaults on West Indians. This simmering hostility finally exploded later that year, in the form of the Notting Hill Race Riots.
The riots began on the night of 29th August, when four hundred white people went on a rampage through the streets, attacking homes and property belonging to West Indians. This, as well as the racist murder of Antiguan carpenter and aspiring law student Kelso Cochrane in 1959, caused a lot of pain and sadness within the West Indian community. In order to help lift this community’s spirits, Claudia Jones, known as the mother of the Notting Hill Carnival, organised an indoor Caribbean carnival. Claudia Jones, originally from Trinidad, was a political activist and a tireless advocate for the rights of the oppressed around the world. These indoor carnivals continued to be held up until Claudia Jones’ death in 1964.
In 1966, activist and former social worker Rhaune Laslett organised the first major outdoor carnival in Notting Hill, continuing the work Claudia Jones had begun. The Notting Hill Festival, as it was then called, involved a number of communities; musical groups from the Indian, Nigerian, Irish, Eastern European and West Indian communities all took part in the festival. The aim of the festival was to help spread cultural and racial tolerance and harmony, and make sure that the racist violence of the ‘50s remained in the past.
However, racism persisted; in the 1970s, a popular restaurant called “The Mangrove” – run by Trinidadian activist Frank Crichlow – emerged as an informal community hub and a place where activists and anti-racist organisers of the Carnival met. It was also the target of significant police attention; between 1969 and 1970, the police raided The Mangrove twelve times. Protests were organised against this, and the police responded with violence. Nine protesters, including Crichlow, were arrested on trumped up charges of conspiring to start riots. The trial of these protestors was very significant; all nine were acquitted, and the judge even mentioned there being evidence of racial discrimination and hatred in their arrests.
Today, the Notting Hill Carnival is one of the largest street festivals in Europe, and remains an exciting and enjoyable experience. However, it seems as though the radical and progressive roots of the Carnival are being forgotten; even the website of the Carnival makes no mention of the Notting Hill race riots, or of Claudia Jones or Rhaune Laslett. The nature of the Carnival has also changed, from a celebration with social and political aims to simply a festival. The gentrification of Notting Hill undoubtedly played a major role in this.
However, it is important that we remember the anti-racist origins of this Carnival, particularly in a post-Brexit Britain where racism has sharply risen and racist attacks, particularly against Eastern Europeans and Muslims, are becoming more and more common. The Notting Hill Carnival showed us the importance of cross-cultural cooperation and the importance of fighting racism in any way we can. Ignoring or forgetting the Carnival’s history does anti-racist fighters like Claudia Jones and Rhaune Laslett, as well as all those who took part in the Carnival in its early days, a huge disservice. The Carnival showed us that different communities can come together in celebration and in opposition to racism, and this is something we should always remember.