Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Manchester’s Black Champion

A colour bar introduced by Winston Churchill prevented Manchester boxer Len Johnson from becoming a champion – now a new campaign wants to recognise him with a statue in the city.

Manchester’s relationship with the slave trade is a matter of historic record, but its streets are not as littered with the names of its culprits in the way that cities such as Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London are. Streets named after large slave-owning families such as the Hibberts and the Beresfords exist, while a heated debate ensues over the future of the statue of Sir Robert Peel in city centre. But the city’s ‘enlightened’ Liberal rulers focused on celebrating upper-class Radicals like Oliver Heywood, who betrayed his pro-slavery father to champion the abolitionist cause.

Close to Heywood’s statue on Albert Square is Lincoln Square, where a monument to the eponymous US president stands. Engraved on the side is his letter saluting the “workmen of Manchester” for their open support of anti-slavery forces in the American Civil War – and in defiance of their mainly pro-Confederate employers. The letter, which was written with an understanding of the material suffering Mancunian workers faced for the abolitionist cause, talks of the “ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom” that all peoples under bondage deserve.

But the city has few public monuments dedicated to its historic, large black community. A bust of the community activist and anti-gang violence campaigner Erinma Bell was placed in Manchester City Council in 2017. In the eighties, Town Hall could also count a sculpture of Nelson Mandela, crafted by the local Communist glassworker Sol Garson, until it was brought to Mandela’s estate in 2005 by struggle veteran Denis Goldberg.

As it stands, Manchester has more monuments dedicated to soft drinks than to its historic black community. Why not a statue of Len Johnson, a Manchester man, titan of the boxing world, and a pioneering civil rights leader?

Len was born in October 1902 in Clayton, to a Sierra Leonian sailor who had settled in Manchester after meeting Margaret, a proud Irish Mancunian. In his north Manchester childhood, Len was surrounded by the Jewish, Irish, Italian and Yemeni immigrants who made up much of Manchester’s working class at this time, but the prejudices against his mixed family ran deep – his mother was viciously assaulted and received lifelong scars on her face for having married a black man.

It was during a workplace fight that Len realised he had some skill, and his father put him up to a few boxing matches on the Ashton Old Road. He won his first two and lost the next two, but local boxing bosses were impressed, and offered him a full-time role in boxing.

From here, Len won as a middleweight against Eddie Pearson at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in January 1922, and started a professional career which spanned eleven years. Of the 127 fights he fought, he won 92, lost 29, and drew 6. His impressive scorecard brought him fame in Britain, and he beat European middleweight champion Roland Todd at Belle Vue in 1927. The following year, he beat the world-renowned Leone Jaccovacci, and in 1929, he got the better of European cruiserweight champion Michele Bonaglia.

However, at this time – despite Len being at the peak of his abilities – he was denied the chance to go for the British middleweight title. The British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC), which was the national authority of such matters, formally stated that he could not compete for this title because, simply, he was black.

Despite Britain’s rich history of black boxers, racist attitudes about the mental and physical dispositions of black people permeated the game; full-time British segregationist campaigners such as the evangelical preacher Frederick Brotherton Meyer argued that white athletes did not have the “animal development” of black people, and could therefore not compete with their “instinctive passion” for violence.

There were also worries over the consequences of emboldening Britain’s colonial subjects. For a nervous British establishment, there were far too many negative ramifications for their rule over the Empire if even an innocent sports tournament could even temporarily demonstrate the equality of black and white people. This is why in 1911, Home Secretary Winston Churchill banned interracial boxing matches, and the BBBC followed suit. The BBBC’s bar remained in place until the 1940s.

Manchester rose with anger for Len. Demonstrations were held across the city, and a protest delegation of boxers was sent to the BBBC’s London headquarters. But the situation demoralised him, and he retired from the profession in 1933, choosing instead to mentor young boxers.

Around this time, the world was changing, and Len began to get political. Fascism was on the rise in Manchester and abroad. In Spain, African-Americans were leading white Americans into battle for the first time as volunteers in the International Brigade, while many professional sportsmen from Manchester – such as the boxers Joe Norman and Bob Goodman, as well as the Belle Vue daredevil motorcyclist Clem Beckett – had gone to defend the democratic Spanish government from Hitler and Mussolini’s might.

The bombs that fell over Madrid ended up falling over Manchester, and Len served in the Civil Defence Corps throughout World War Two. In 1944, at a time when respect for the Soviet Union’s sacrifice in the struggle against Hitler was sky-high, Len joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He was also a delegate to the Fifth Pan-African Congress, which was held besides All Saints Park in 1945, which attracted nearly ninety anti-colonial political activists, including future political leaders such as Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, Nigeria’s Jaja Wachuku, and Jamaica’s Dudley Thompson.

By 1946, Manchester’s black community had swelled to number around 10,000 people, as black ex-servicemen and migrant workers settled down in places like Moss Side. Len was wise to the discrimination they were facing and could potentially face, and so set up the New International Club on Grafton Street with his friends Syd Booth and Wilf Charles – two white working-class Mancunians who had fought against the fascists in Spain.

The New International attempted to channel what it called the “growing feeling of frustration” with substandard housing and jobs for black people in Manchester, and wanted to be both a social club and an organising space for black people to unite and solve their problems in Manchester. The principles of the Club were declared in its founding statement: “true internationalism; colonial liberation; the ending of racial discrimination; peace.”

The Club was one of the first places to hold African and Caribbean club nights in Manchester, and where young black and white workers could blend and meet each other. But it was also the bedrock of building connections between Manchester’s workers movement with black people all over the world, including organising solidarity with the Trenton Six, a group of black men sentenced to death by an all-white jury for a murder they didn’t commit.

But it held a power of its own here: in 1946, when a major shipping company in Manchester attempted to sack all of its black sailors, the Club’s membership of several hundred people held street meetings to appeal to white sailors, who stuck with their “coloured” colleagues and stopped the job losses. Similarly, after being tipped off, the Club’s leadership also helped cancel the policy of segregated queues in Manchester’s Labour Exchanges for unemployed black and white workers.

From his boxing days, Len had a loyal fan in the figure of the great Paul Robeson, who travelled over to perform at the Club in support of its solidarity efforts with African Americans. The concert became legendary for the spectacle of Robeson performing outside for the tens of thousands of Mancunians who couldn’t get a ticket for the sold-out Club event; and when Robeson’s passport was seized by the American authorities during McCarthyism, Len, Wilf and Syd were some of the leaders of the Let Robeson Sing Campaign. When he was finally allowed to travel again, Robeson penned a thank you letter to the Club for its support, assuring them that he would “never forget that it was the people of Manchester and of the other industrial areas of Britain who gave me the understanding of the oneness of people — a concept upon which I have based my career as an artist and citizen.”

Aside from being a well-respected community leader, Len stood as a council candidate several times. He wrote a monthly boxing column for the Daily Worker newspaper while working as a truck driver, where he penned pioneering essays on the welfare of retired athletes, the potential physical impairment that boxing causes, and the lack of sports facilities for working-class young people in Manchester. 

When he died in September 1974, he died in relative anonymity in Britain, but was mourned internationally as a pioneer for equality in sports. He was also remembered as a stalwart in the local labour movement who had worked to improve race relations among the city’s working class.

However, a well-deserved renewal of interest in Len Johnson has taken place in the past few decades. A biography has been written about him, as has a play, and Labour MP Afzal Khan has encouraged the idea of a memorial to him.

The most positive aspect of the long-overdue toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol is the wave of honest discussion about the sordid past of Britain’s ruling class. But if this period can highlight the grotesque norms this country once considered acceptable, then it should also be a time for discussing and remembering those who came up against the system and fought it. For Manchester, there can be no better testament to that spirit of resistance than the figure of Len Johnson.

You can sign the petition to support a Len Johnson statue here.

About the Author

Deej Malik-Johnson is a Manchester-based organiser, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Manchester and an activist for the decolonisation of education and mental health services.

Marcus Barnett is associate editor at Tribune.