Devon Thomas pays tribute to Darcus Howe, a citizen of Brixton for 30 years and leading campaigner for the rights of Black people
The old street warrior Darcus Howe has passed over to the Ancestors.
I met him in Notting Hill in the late 1960s when I was working at the Notting Hill Adventure Playground and he was a member of the Mangrove, a restaurant and community hub on All Saints Road owned by fellow Trinidadian Frank Critchlow.
He came to national prominence as a defendant in the Mangrove 9 trial. The Metropolitan police targeted The Mangrove in Notting Hill as a “place of ill repute”, claiming that drugs were sold there and that other undesirable activities took place such as “uptown people” like Mick Jagger and Keith Richard hanging out and consorting with people like Christine Keeler and Lucky Gordon, also recently deceased.
In truth, it provided a symbolic space where locals and their guests socialised and discussed the issues of the day and organised against efforts by the authorities to suppress the rebellious spirit that was abroad in those “Swinging Sixties”!
The community, including Darcus and Frank, mobilised against the continual raiding and harassment and a demonstration and march from Notting Dale to Paddington police station took place.
The police tried to disrupt the march. Fighting ensued and they arrested a number of the participants, later singling out the nine most active, who included Darcus. They were charged with a series of very serious public order offences.
A sophisticated collective strategy was organised, including Darcus defending himself when they all appeared at the Old Bailey.
They won their battle against these state forces and Darcus went on to become a public commentator, journalist, activist, later leader of the Race Today collective and editor of its monthly magazine during the 1970s and 80s.
I assisted the new Race Today in 1975, when they had to relocate from Kings Cross and they moved to a property that my organisation at the time, BYFHAA, controlled at 165 Railton Road. now occupied by the Brixton Advice Centre.
As a member of Race Today, Darcus became a leading figure in the New Cross Massacre Action Committee and the Black People’s Day of Action that highlighted the death of 13 young people in a fire at a birthday party.
He was also a leading figure in the establishment of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books the premier annual event of its kind at that time.
Later in the 1980s, after his friend Farouk Dhondy became commissioning editor for minority programmes at Channel 4, he found a consistent place in the broadcast media, making and presenting TV programmes such as Bandung File and Devil’s Advocate.
He retained his involvement with the Mangrove, working with their ‘Mas and steel bands, and was particularly associated with the Carnival Development Committee, one of the main protagonist organisations in conflicts over the control and organisation of the annual Notting Hill Carnival.
Even in the latter part of his life when he was afflicted with prostate cancer, he made a TV special, describing his experience of the disease and advised men of African-Caribbean origin to “get themselves checked out early” to maximise the chances of recovery.
Most people had firm views about Darcus, but whatever these may have been, no one can deny that he was a doughty fighter in the cause of Black and oppressed people’s interests.
May his spirit find rest.
Devon C. Thomas – The Griot
He loved a scrap with bureaucracy – tribute from Brixton Advice Centre
Fred Taggart, secretary of the Brixton Advice Centre, expressed sadness at the passing of Darcus Howe and said:
Darcus was a big man in every sense. Big in stature, big in personality and big in heart. His contribution to the fight against injustice and for racial equality was both brave and unmatched. As an Irish person I know that he fought our corner too.
Race Today magazine, which he published as part of the collective, was based next door to the Centre and I got to know Darcus over 30 years. He was a great supporter and friend of the Centre, especially when we needed help with the council. Darcus loved a scrap with bureaucracy.
When, after Race Today closed and we acquired its offices, together with the flat occupied by CLR James, we persuaded English Heritage to erect a blue plaque to James, the first to a black man in Lambeth. There was only one person to unveil the plaque and Darcus did a great job. His speech was simply inspirational. The crowd closed the road.
Darcus and his wife Leila visited the Centre in 2015 to launch our new window art dedicated to, and celebrating, distinguished local Black people who share a strong connection to our premises on Railton Road.
Once again he lifted our spirits and reminded us that the fight for justice and equality is also rooted in organisations like the Brixton Advice Centre. Darcus had the great facility to mix political vision with learning and culture, and to make us laugh as well.
We offer our sympathy and love to Leila and the family.