John La Rose (1927-2006), co-founder of the George Padmore Institute (GPI), was born in Trinidad and was a poet, essayist, publisher, filmmaker, trade unionist, and cultural and political activist. In 1966, with his partner, Sarah White, he set up one of the first Black British bookshops in the UK, New Beacon Books. His wide-ranging contribution to the struggle for racial equality and social justice, as well as cultural change, is unparalleled in the history of the black experience in Britain.
John’s dedication to supporting black and Asian communities is evident from the vast array of materials held in the archive collections at the GPI, many of which originated from John La Rose himself. These materials not only reflect his rich legacy, but they continue to inspire and inform discussions on cultural identity, politics, and Black British history within and beyond the Caribbean diaspora.
The Caribbean Artists Movement
The Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM), co-founded by John La Rose, Kamau Brathwaite and Andrew Salkey in 1966, was a pivotal platform that created a space for Caribbean writers, artists, and critics based in the UK to address the marginalisation of their work through collaborative discourse and cultural expression. This movement, inclusive and open to all who shared its vision, fostered a vibrant community that explored new directions in Caribbean arts and culture during a period of significant political and social change. John La Rose, along with the movement’s co-founders, emphasised informal interactions and encouraged a free exchange of ideas without a predefined ideology or manifesto. CAM’s activities included talks, discussions, conferences, recitals and art exhibitions, significantly contributing to the cultural landscape of the time.
CAM’s official launch in 1967 at the West Indian Students Centre (WISC) in London, marked the beginning of its public engagements. The WISC, a hub for West Indian community gatherings, hosted regular CAM public sessions and symposia, featuring panel discussions, readings, and book stalls. These sessions were integral in fostering dialogue among readers and established writers, critics, artists, and sculptors including CLR James, Sam Selvon, Wilson Harris, Aubrey Williams, Ronald Moody, Errol Lloyd and Altheia McNish.
John La Rose played a further crucial role at these events by providing access to books from New Beacon Books.
The Black Education Movement
The Black Education Movement (BEM) (1968-1975) and the Black Supplementary Schools Movement (BSSM) (1970s-1990s) emerged as a form of vital self-help in response to a British education system that was deemed prejudiced and inadequate for black children’s needs. The BEM focused on four main areas: campaigning against the banding of pupils in schools, which was seen as a ploy to segregate black students under the guise of academic ability; the formation of associations to debate critical educational issues, particularly concerning Educationally Sub-Normal (ESN) schools; the development of the BSSM; and building public awareness and support for these educational issues.
John La Rose played a significant role in the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (CECWA), which spearheaded the setting up of independent black supplementary schools. These schools, including the notable George Padmore and Albertina Sylvester Black Supplementary Schools founded by John, were essential in providing black children with an education that focused on Pan African history, culture and core academic subjects, tailored to empower and build self-esteem. The supplementary schools operated part-time, mostly in the evenings or on Saturdays, and were run by volunteer teachers, community activists and parents. John La Rose’s involvement in these movements was pivotal, not only in challenging the systemic biases in the education system but also in nurturing a sense of community and resilience among black children in the UK.
The Black Parents Movement
The Black Parents Movement (BPM), founded in 1975 and active primarily until the mid-1980s, was a landmark organisation in Britain, primarily composed of people of Caribbean and African descent. It emerged as an extension of the Black Education Movement, formed in response to challenges faced by black people in Britain from the 1960s to 1974, particularly in education, policing, housing and unemployment. The BPM was sparked by the arrest of a schoolboy, Cliff McDaniel, outside his school in Hornsey, North London. Many parents and teachers from the George Padmore Supplementary School, who knew McDaniel, joined the BPM to seek justice for the mistreatment and arrest of the schoolboy as well as call for the dismissal of the arresting officer, PC Ryan David.
The BPM saw itself as part of the independent black radical and revolutionary movement, forming alliances with similar organisations both nationally and internationally. This collaborative approach was evident in its alliance with the Black Students Movement (BSM), later renamed the Black Youth Movement (BYM), over the Cliff McDaniel case. The BPM and BYM also joined Race Today Collective and Bradford Black Collective, collectively known as the Alliance, who maintained their independence while collaborating on campaigns and other activities.
John La Rose was a key figure in introducing methods of planning and running campaigns, working with rather than for the victim. The BPM’s campaigns addressed issues such as racism in education, unfair suspensions and expulsions in schools, police maltreatment, legal defence for juveniles and challenging deportation orders. Their approach to self-help and community support set them apart from other movements. Notably, members of the BPM and the Alliance were the first to respond to the New Cross fire in 1981, quickly establishing the New Cross Massacre Action Committee.
The New Cross Massacre Action Committee
The New Cross Massacre Action Committee was formed in response to a suspected racist arson attack on a birthday party in New Cross, London on 18 January 1981, which resulted in the death of 13 young black people. The NCMAC, established just two days after the incident, sought to address the mishandling of the police investigation, the government’s indifference to the attack and the distorted media coverage. John La Rose chaired the committee and was a key member of the group of activists who mobilised the community’s response to the tragedy.
Under the banner of the NCMAC, an estimated 15,000-20,000 people participated in The Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March 1981, a demonstration through London’s streets. Despite an agreement with the police on the route of the march, demonstrators still faced challenges, including attempts by the police to block the march at Blackfriars Bridge. The protest, organised to maximise impact and media attention, culminated in the delivery of The Declaration of New Cross to 10 Downing Street and other governmental bodies.
An inquest, on 21 April 1981 at County Hall in London, was closely monitored by the NCMAC. Despite forensic evidence suggesting a possible incendiary device and the theory of a racist attack, the jury returned an open verdict. The coroner’s handling of the hearing led to an authorised appeal by the Attorney General in July 1982, but the open verdict was not overturned. It wasn’t until 1997 that the police reopened the investigation, leading to a second inquest in February 2004, which again concluded with an open verdict.
The NCMAC also established a Fire Fund to support the families of the victims and organised annual vigils and memorial services. The New Cross Memorial Trust was set up in 1981 to honour the victims, and a memorial was erected in Lewisham in 1997.
The Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya
The Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya (CRPPK), established on 2 July 1982 and coordinated by John La Rose from the New Beacon Bookshop in north London, was formed in response to the increasing repression under President Daniel Arap Moi’s regime in Kenya. The CRPPK’s mission was to act as a solidarity organisation for those in Kenya who were arrested, detained or harassed due to their political activities. La Rose’s involvement was key in highlighting to an international audience the systematic attacks on intellectual, political and cultural life in Kenya. The organisation’s focus included the struggles of a broad spectrum of Kenyan society, including lecturers, students, writers, lawyers, peasants, workers, and members of parliament.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the CRPPK remained active, publishing the influential Kenya News bulletin and coordinating with other Kenyan democratic and solidarity movements abroad. This collaboration included work with groups like UMOJA-Kenya, based in London, and the underground organisation Mwakenya, which opposed Moi’s Kenya African National Union (KANU) government from within Kenya.
The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books
The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books was founded by New Beacon Books, Race Today Publications, and Bogle L’Ouverture Publications. From 1982 to 1995, twelve Book Fairs were held in London, with additional events in Manchester, Bradford, Leeds and Glasgow. The fairs were not only about exhibiting, ordering, and distributing books but were also significant cultural and political events, which included a festival of forums, poetry readings, theatrical productions, concerts, and film screenings.
John La Rose, representing New Beacon Books, played a key role as Joint Director alongside Jessica Huntley from Bogle L’Ouverture Publications. Along with an Organising Committee and dedicated volunteers, they planned and oversaw numerous book fairs and their accompanying festivals. Highlighting the global and multidisciplinary nature of the fairs, they were described as ‘a meeting of the continents for writers, publishers, distributors, booksellers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and the people who inspire and consume their creative productions’.