Part three of our series on black radicals looks at Claudia Jones
It was just a few months after the Notting Hill “race riot” of 1958. The small Caribbean immigrant population living in the London borough of Kensington was still reeling after being attacked by violent racist and fascist mobs during the summer.
A further blow was struck when a racist gang stabbed a young West Indian, Kelso Cochrane, to death. No one was ever prosecuted - making it the Stephen Lawrence case of its day.
Immigrants from all the different Caribbean islands had come together to defend themselves against the mobs and a hostile police force. Now they knew they had in some way to assert their right to be in Britain and their social, cultural and political identity.
At the centre of this new unity was the Communist Claudia Jones. A few years earlier she had been deported from the US for her political activities, and she knew how to campaign against racism. One of her political friends recalled that Claudia “was at her best when there was trouble! To see her in action during the Notting Hill riots was to be inspired.”
One of Claudia’s responses to the riot involved a plan to transplant the subversive Trinidadian tradition of carnival to Britain. Its aim was to bring West Indians together and reach out to the white population of Britain.
The first “carnival” in January 1959 was a small cultural evening held in a London town hall. But it had a political edge - it was announced that proceeds from the evening “are to assist the payment of fines of coloured and white youths involved in the Notting Hill events”.
The carnival has proved to be Claudia Jones’s lasting and most impressive legacy. Millions now attend, transforming all those who take part in it - a kind of active “multiculturalism from below”.
Claudia Jones was born in the British colony of Trinidad in 1915. The island had been devastated by colonialism, and lack of opportunity forced Claudia’s family abroad. They settled in New York City, where Claudia was raised in poverty.
In 1936 she joined the American Communist Party. She soon became a full time organiser, and in 1948 she suffered her first arrest on political charges.
This was the period of the Cold War, when America and the Soviet Union were locked into a struggle for domination. Communists found themselves witch-hunted for “un-American activities”, jailed, and their lives wrecked. Jail broke Claudia Jones’s health and she developed the heart problems that were eventually to kill her at the age of just 48.
The American state wanted to deport Claudia back to Trinidad after she had finished her prison sentence. But the British colonial governor refused to have her on the grounds that “she may prove troublesome”.
In the winter of 1955 Claudia arrived in London. This was the London where racial discrimination was still perfectly legal.
It was a place where landlords would post “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish” in their windows - forcing black arrivals into slum areas such as Notting Hill.
A “colour bar” operated across most of society.
Claudia Jones set about campaigning for black rights and against discrimination.
She founded, above a barber’s shop in Brixton, one of the first “black” newspapers - the West Indian Gazette. All the best writers of the Caribbean at the time wrote for the Gazette, as did world figures such as Paul Robeson, who was a friend of Claudia’s.
Claudia, despite declining health, threw herself into all the campaigns going: against the 1962 Immigration Act that made it harder for black people from the Commonwealth to come to Britain; for the release of Nelson Mandela; and speaking against racism in the workplace at trade union branches.
On Christmas Day 1964 she was found dead in her flat - struck down by a massive heart attack.
Her funeral was a large and political affair.
Claudia Jones was buried next to Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery, north London. A message from Paul Robeson was read out:
“It was a great privilege to have known Claudia Jones. She was a vigorous and courageous leader of the Communist Party of the United States, and was very active in the work for the unity of white and coloured peoples and for dignity and equality, especially for the Negro people and for women.”
Claudia Jones: A Life in Exile by Marika Sherwood (Lawrence & Wishart)