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  • Writer's pictureLivi Adu

What Can We Learn from Olive Morris?

A Trailblazer for Equality and Social Justice

Olive Morris was a force to be reckoned with. Despite her untimely death at the age of 27, she left an indelible mark on her community and the world at large.

Morris was a Jamaican-born, British-based community leader and activist in the feminist, Black nationalist, and squatters' rights campaigns of the 1970s. She was a fearless and relentless advocate for equality and justice, and her work continues to inspire activists today. In this blog post, we will explore Morris's life and legacy, including her early life, her activism, the groups she founded, and her lasting impact on her community. Let us celebrate the life and legacy of this remarkable woman together.

Olive's Origins: A Life of Activism Rooted in Early Experiences

Olive Morris was born in 1952 in Hennants, Jamaica, into a family of humble means. In 1961, when she was just nine years old, her family made the significant decision to migrate to London, England. This move marked the beginning of a new chapter in her life, one that would be characterized by resilience and activism.

Upon moving to South London at the age of nine, Morris began a new chapter of her life. Her father worked as a forklift driver and her mother was employed in factories. She attended Heathbrook Primary School, Lavender Hill Girls' Secondary School, and Tulse Hill Secondary School. Her experiences in the British education system, coupled with the racial and social injustices she witnessed and experienced, played a crucial role in shaping her into the activist she would become.

Morris's early life in London was a testament to her strength and tenacity, qualities that would later define her legacy as a trailblazing activist and community leader. Despite the challenges she faced, including racial and social injustices, discrimination in education, employment, and housing, and police brutality and harassment, she remained undeterred. These experiences fueled her passion for activism and community leadership, laying the foundation for her future work in fighting for equality and justice. These experiences, coupled with her resilience and determination, laid the foundation for her future work in activism and community leadership.

A watercolour artistic impression of  Olive Morris as a young black  girl in a pink sweater and blue skirt stands with her back to the viewer, looking at a red brick school building with a green roof and a clock tower. The sky is gray and the ground is wet, suggesting recent rain. A bench and a tree are visible on the left side of the image, adding to the nostalgic and sentimental mood.
Artistic illustration of Olive Morris as a young girl standing in defiance of the discrimination she faced in at school. AI-generated image

Founding Pillars of Empowerment: Morris's Activism and Community Leadership

Olive Morris was a fearless activist and community leader who dedicated her life to fighting for justice and equality. She intervened in an incident where the Metropolitan Police attempted to arrest a Nigerian diplomat who had parked his Mercedes on Atlantic Road in Brixton. The police, assuming the diplomat had stolen the car, began to arrest and beat him. Morris stepped forward to stop the police from attacking the diplomat, which resulted in the police turning on her, arresting her, and assaulting her. This incident led to Morris being physically assaulted and racially abused by the police. This event marked a significant turning point in her life and ignited her commitment to challenging oppression.

In the early 1970s, Morris became a member of the youth section of the British Black Panther Movement (BBPM), which was inspired by but not affiliated with the American Black Panther Party. The BBPM had a mission to promote self-determination and challenge the British state. Morris's involvement with this movement further solidified her role as a community leader and activist.

Morris also played a central role in the squatters' rights campaigns of the 1970s. In 1973, she opened the 121 Railton Road squat with her friend Liz Obi. This squat became a hub of political activism and hosted community groups such as Black People Against State Harassment. It also housed the Sabarr Bookshop, one of the first Black community bookshops.

Olive Morris was a tireless advocate for social justice and equality. She played a central role in the squatters' rights campaigns of the 1970s, co-founding the 121 Railton Road squat in 1973 with Liz Obi. This squat became a hub of political activism and community empowerment, hosting groups such as Black People Against State Harassment and the Sabarr Bookshop, one of the first Black community bookshops in the UK. She was also instrumental in establishing key groups that aimed to address the specific issues faced by Black women. In 1973, she founded the Brixton Black Women's Group (BBWG), which provided a platform for Black women to discuss their experiences, raise consciousness, and develop political strategies for change.

In addition to the BBWG, Olive Morris co-founded the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) in 1978 with Stella Dadzie and other women. OWAAD was an activist organisation for British Black and Asian women that held its first conference at the Abeng Centre in Brixton, a centre that Morris had helped to establish. Through these groups, Morris created platforms for Black women to voice their experiences, raise awareness, and fight for their rights. Her work in founding these groups marked a significant contribution to the Black Women's Movement in the United Kingdom.

After graduating from the University of Manchester, Olive Morris returned to Brixton and began working at the Brixton Community Law Centre. Here, she was involved in the campaign to scrap the ‘sus’ laws, a controversial stop and search law that disproportionately affected Black communities. Her work at the law centre was a testament to her commitment to justice and equality.

Through these experiences, Olive Morris emerged as a fearless leader and activist dedicated to fighting for justice and equality. She tirelessly advocated for the rights of Black people, women, and other marginalized groups. Her work helped shape the course of British history and inspires activists today.

A Life Cut Short but, Morris's Legacy Lives On

Tragically, Olive Morris's life was cut short at the young age of 27 when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Despite her untimely death, her spirit and legacy continue to inspire and empower activists today. Morris's life and work have been commemorated by both official organizations and activist groups. Lambeth Council named a building after her in recognition of her significant contributions to the community. The Remembering Olive Collective (ROC) was established to promote her legacy. In 2009, she was chosen by popular vote as one of the historical figures to feature on the Brixton pound, a local currency. Then in 2011, the Olive Morris Memorial Award was launched to give bursaries to young Black women. Olive Morris's legacy is a testament to her fearless dedication to fighting oppression on all levels. She was a true pioneer for social change, and her life serves as a reminder of the power of resilience, courage, and community.

Olive Morris, a black woman with an afro, adorned with a pearl necklace, stands resolute, megaphone in hand, leading a large crowd in protest. The crowd is of black women raising their fists in solidarity against a backdrop of buildings. The scene is awash with hues of orange and brown, symbolizing the fiery spirit of the movement.
Olive Morris's message still empowers and inspires activists today. AI-generated Image

Conclusion: Olive Morris's Legacy of Social Justice and Community Leadership

Olive Morris inspires me with her story and her lasting legacy. Her life and work are a testament to the power of resilience, courage, and unwavering commitment to justice. From her early activism in the Black Panther Party and the squatters' rights movement to her co-founding of the Brixton Black Women's Group and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, Morris dedicated herself to fighting for equality and empowering marginalized communities.

Her work at the Brixton Community Law Centre, her fight against racial and social injustices, and her enduring influence on community activism serve as a legacy that inspires activists today. Olive Morris's story is a powerful reminder that one person can indeed make a difference. Her life and contributions continue to echo in the hearts and minds of those who strive for a more just and equitable world. I hold her story of social justice close to my heart and hope to follow in her footsteps in my work with museums.

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