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Black History Month: Racial injustice not yet history

14 October 2022

The 35th annual Black History Month is an opportunity to reflect on church attitudes, says Richard Reddie


A postbox featuring an image of Second Lieutenant Walter Tull, in Glasgow, one of four postboxes repainted by the Royal Mail to mark Black History Month in 2020

A postbox featuring an image of Second Lieutenant Walter Tull, in Glasgow, one of four postboxes repainted by the Royal Mail to mark Black History Mon...

OCTOBER is Black History Month (BHM), which, since 1987, has given “everyone the opportunity to share, celebrate, and understand the impact of Black heritage and culture on Britain”. While BHM is for everyone, for many years it remained under the radar for most British people, while invariably being celebrated by those of African and African Caribbean heritage.

With the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, as a result of George Floyd’s murder, it is now practically impossible to avoid BHM in many big cities. Venues as varied as supermarkets, banks, coffee shops, and libraries promote the many talks, historical walks, and musical events linked to this celebration.

History reveals that, in its first decade, the month focused largely on Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil-rights movement in the United States, and the transatlantic slave trade and its connections to the Caribbean and Africa. Over the past decade-and-a-half, however, there has been a shift in emphasis on to Black British history, in which the many and varied contributions of Black British people to this country are now celebrated.

This change coincided with the publication of books exploring the Black presence in the Tudor, Georgian, and Victorian eras, as well as scholarly studies of those Black servicemen and -women who travelled to this country to fight in the two world wars.

Similarly, Black heritage organisations began using the anniversaries connected to the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush (the former warship that brought hundreds of Caribbean people to Britain in 1948), as a way of highlighting the ongoing influence of Black people on post-war Britain.


IT WOULD be true to say that British churches were initially slow to celebrate BHM: many were concerned that the “Black” in BHM could appear divisive, and imply that Christians were not “all one in Christ” because of race or ethnicity.

Likewise, BHM traditionally concentrated on the lives and activities of politicians, campaigners, freedom fighters, sports stars, and entertainers, but rarely religious figures. Even when a person was religious, the attention tended to be on other attributes or achievements rather than Christian ones.

A good case in point was Dr Harold Moody, a Jamaican-born physician who practised medicine in south-east London in the 1930s and ’40s. Initially, he was remembered as the founder of the League of Coloured Peoples rather than a church leader of some renown.

Thankfully, the tendency to exclude Black Majority Churches (BMCs) from BHM is passé, allowing them to elucidate on their amazing stories of struggle, steadfastness, and success.

Anyone interested in these stories should read seminal research from Black British scholars and writers such as Mark Sturge, Marcia Dixon, Dr Israel Olofinjana, and Dr R. David Muir, who reveal that the waves of Black people who followed the arrival of the Empire Windrush to these shores brought with them a Christian faith that helped to revitalise the spiritual climate in this country.

As such, over the past 70 years, these Christians have dynamically transformed historic denominations such as the Church of England, and have overseen the inexorable rise of Black-led Pentecostal churches, which are some of the fastest-growing congregations in the country. Indeed, these writers show that BMCs are the Black community’s success story in Britain, being its most coherent and purposeful expression.


NEXT year brings the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush, and moves are afoot for the churches to celebrate this landmark date with a national church service and a range of “thanksgiving” events that acknowledge all that God has done for the Church since 1948.

Consequently, BMCs and BHM are no longer strange bedfellows, but fellow travellers on a history-related journey. Each year, Keep the Faith magazine, which regards itself as a voice for Black British Christians, has a special BHM edition of its publication; and the Church of England’s report on racism, From Lament to Action, recommended that all its churches celebrate BHM.

The history of the racial-justice movement in Britain is also now a key facet of BHM, and the Black, Asian, and white women and men who have championed equality, diversity, and inclusion in the Church (and society) are the subjects of studies, events, and activities. What is more, many BHM brochures and booklets include events that are church-related, even though there is still a tendency to limit this inclusion to Black gospel-related music.

The ultimate recognition of the Black Christian contribution to Black British history occurred when the pioneering publication 100 Great Black Britons featured key church leaders and Christian campaigners and advocates.

Although the Black Majority Churches in Britain and Ireland have much to celebrate, it would be remiss to sidestep the racism that, sadly, shadows their story. And, while much has been written about the lukewarm welcome for Black Christians from the historic Churches during the Windrush era and beyond, less is said about the impact that this had on its recipients.

Again, research by Sturge et al. reveals that some walked away from the Church for ever, while others established their own congregations. It would be wrong to suggest that Black-led churches in Britain were a direct result of racism; there were other spiritual, social, and emotional phenomena militating for their establishment, but it wasa factor.

Indeed, all Churches in Britain have been grappling with racism since that time, with varying degrees of success. From Lament to Action is the latest in a long line of investigations to address racism in the Church of England’s structures.

Just as the murder of George Floyd proved to be a kairos moment for racial justice in 2020, the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence in London in 1993 was also a catalyst for church action on racism. The Lawrence family had links to the Methodist Church, and, because of this, the Methodists joined with Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) to back the family’s justice campaign and to establish Racial Justice Sunday in 1995.


IT IS within this context that Race for Justice, a book that I have just edited, has been published. The above-mentioned race-related events of 2020 coincided with the 25th anniversary of Racial Justice Sunday in Britain and Ireland, and Race for Justice was conceived to explore the ways in which the main historic denominations, para-church groups, and nations have sought to tackle racism in Church and society over a quarter of a century.

The book features chapters by individuals who have a passion for racial justice and an in-depth knowledge of the Churches and organisations that they explore in their writings.

Part of the challenge with special months such as BHM, in October, and special days such as Racial Justice Sunday, on the second Sunday in February, is that, like birthdays, they are marked for a finite time, and then forgotten.

Moreover, people often “move on” from tragedies that may have initially stimulated their interest in a cause. For example, Race for Justice reveals that the flurry of activities after Stephen Lawrence’s killing had dissipated by the next decade.

In fact, by the time of Barack Obama’s inauguration as the first Black US President, in 2008, some on both sides of the Atlantic were arguing that we lived in a “post-racial” society. This impression was shattered cruelly by the Floyd tragedy.

The question posed in the book is whether the current interest in racial justice will evaporate in a few years, or whether those existing programmes and projects will lead to meaningful change within the Church and society.

It can be argued that those seeking to promote greater racial justice in Britain should mirror the methodology used to further BHM. While BHM was initially the reserve of Britain’s Black community, it has now become mainstream, and is even celebrated by noted retail outlets. BHM is considered everyone’s history, because it explores British history and the contributions of Black British people in those events.

Likewise, racial justice should be everyone’s business, irrespective of ethnicity, because everyone should be interested in justice. Indeed, those who have written chapters in Race for Justice are Black, White, and Asian British, as well as Irish. What they all have in common is a Christian faith that inspired them to stand up for justice and equality, and stand against racism and ignorance.


Richard Reddie is Director of Justice and Inclusion at CTBI, and is the editor of Race for Justice: The struggle for equality and inclusion in British and Irish churches, published by Monarch Books at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-80030-010-1.

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