Memories of the Civil Rights Icon and friend Bernie Grant


I’m not quite sure of the date when I met first met my hero Bernie Grant. I know it was in the 1990’s probably 1995. I was a volunteer for Charter 88, a democratic reform organisation run by Andrew Puddephatt. I was asked to go to a meeting that Bernie was speaking at at Tonybee Hall in Holborn. Back then most radical meetings were held at Toynbee Hall.

I was so excited to meet the great man. After he spoke I introduced myself to him and explained that I was volunteering at Charter 88, at which point he exploded: “Charter 88, Charter88, that bunch of illiberal liberals . They cost us the last election by introducing the notion of proportional representation which distracted from our core messages. Charter 88! Don’t get me started”. And with that he brushed me aside and began conversation with some else. I was mortified, but didn’t give in. I later understood how many liberals wanted a democratic resettlement that totally ignored race inequality, and barely acknowledged the class divide.

When Bernie he saw me again it was with placards outside the British Museum supporting his campaign for the return of the Benign Bronzes, he told me, "You’re alright. I like activists who’ll come out when nobody else will to fight for what’s right". Bernie had put a call to protest, on freezing Saturday morning about 4 people showed up.

Helped by one if his trusted Broad Water Farm right hand men- Derek Hinds – Bernie and I became friends, not very best friends but friends in the struggle. After the 1997 election that Tony Blair handsomely won OBV along with Bernie Grant convened a meeting to scope out what a Parliamentary Black British Caucus might look like. It never got off the ground, not least because Blair co-opted both Paul Boteng and Keith Vaz into the higher ranks of his Government, and with it the collective Black radical voice was done for.

None the less, Bernie would be a tireless campaigner for racial and social justice, until his dying day. He once informed from his office, that he didn’t just cater for the people of Tottenham , “but Black people all over the country and abroad all beat a path to his door for help” , he said, ”And I turn no one away”. That was Bernie Grant.

One morning I heard he was in hospital.  I found out where he was, -Archway hospital-, and raced over, running up that hill as fast I could. Bernie was in bed reading the papers. “Woolley, man, what you doing here” , he said warmly, “ I’ve come to see how you Bernie that’s all” I replied. “I’m okay, man don’t worry about me . We got bigger things to worry about” . And with that we started to talk politics. We talked about the rise of the Far Right and other challenging aspects of racism. He oscillated from being optimistic to being down right angry, but above all frustrated. He said, “I don’t care much for those ministerial roles, many are just for show , I am saddened though that our Prime Minster has never called upon me to use my wealth of skills as a union man, or as someone how knows a thing or two about how communities to help make our society better” . Bernie Grant was both in life and death the most revered Black politician ever to have graced our parliament.

Selfishly, I think greatest tribute Bernie paid to me was to invite me to his wedding gathering at the Houses of Parliament. I truly was a nobody- I get that- but to Bernie I was a fellow activist fighting the good fight, and at the same time and above all, a friend. And that meant a great deal.

Rest in Peace Brother Bernie. Rest knowing your work continues.

Simon Woolley