Bernie Grant, Militant Parliamentarian (1944-2000)

Bernie GrantLabour MP Bernie Grant was one of the most charismatic black political leaders of modern times. His death 8 April 2000 marked almost four decades campaigning for racial justice and minority rights. Though in life he was an outspoken maverick, in death, Bernie Grant was praised from the heights of the Establishment, from Cabinet ministers and Scotland Yard to political associates and black community leaders, and Prime Minister Tony Blair described Grant as "an inspiration to Black British communities everywhere".

From his funeral lectern, draped in the flag of Mr Grant's native Guyana, the tributes flowed. Doreen Lawrence, mother of the murdered black teenager Stephen, spoke of her respect and affection for Grant. Mr Jack Straw, Home Office Minister, praised his role in campaigning for the now famous inquiry into the Lawrence case and said: "Bernie's achievement was huge in making our society more tolerant and decent." Chief Superintendent of Police Steven James said: "Some people think it reasonable to support the view that Bernie Grant and the police were on different sides. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Early years

Born February 17, 1944 in British Guiana, now Guyana, Bernard Alexander Montgomery Grant was the son of school teachers, Eric and Lily, who named him after two generals then fighting the Second World War. Bernie came to Britain in 1963, and worked as a British Railways clerk, a National Union of Public Employees area officer, and as a partisan of the Black Trade Unionists Solidarity Movement.

A successful local politician, Grant served for a decade as local councillor in the London Borough of Haringey, of which he was elected Leader in 1985. He was the first black head of a local authority in Britain, and was responsible for the well-being of a quarter of a million people, many of them Black and ethnic minorities. Grant joined the Labour Party in 1975 and was elected as Member of Parliament for Tottenham.

Known as a firebrand and socialist advocate, he was rather conservative in other respects: being a staunch admirer of the Queen, a Euro-sceptic and advocate of old-fashioned schooling. Paul Boateng, a fellow black MP, led tributes from Grant's parliamentary colleagues saying Bernie was an untiring personality "who spoke with great authority and passion on issues that others often disagreed".

Campaigner

Bernie Grant brought to parliament a long and distinguished campaigning record. He was a founder member of the Standing Conference of Afro-Caribbean and Asian Councillors and a member of the Labour Party Black Sections. He convened major conferences of politicians, activists, researchers and academics to shape black agendas. Grant also helped tackle racism on a European wide level, in association with members of the European Parliament and anti-racist groups.

A keen internationalist and pan-Africanist, Grant served on the National Executive of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain, and had a longstanding friendship with Nelson Mandela, whom he supported throughout his imprisonment and subsequent release. He maintained a keen interest in Caribbean regional affairs, Central America, Ireland and Cyprus.

Bernie's attributes were acclaimed by his obituarist Narendra Makanji, of the London Borough of Haringey local council, who said: "He united workers in industries and the public services through the Black Trade Unionist Solidarity Movement; pulled together the Labour party black section in pursuing seats in councils and in parliament; and improved the bargaining position of agriculture workers in the Caribbean."

Rebel with a cause

Grant inspired the Parliamentary Black Caucus, co-founded with his fellow "first black parliamentarians" elected in 1987 and Lord Pitt. Inspired by Congressman Ron Dellums and the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus, Grant told the PBC inaugural conference in 1989: "For far too long the black community has had no voice in Britain and we are seeking to redress that". His epitaph, he hoped would simply state "Bernie Grant - African Rebel": a fitting tribute to a man who was a powerful link between black communities in Britain and the Black nations and communities of the world.

In many ways a firebrand activist at heart, Grant courted controversy all his life and evoked mixed emotions. He once shocked royalists and socialists alike by wearing an African dashiki at the state opening of Parliament. Arguably, a controversial politician not to every ones liking, Grant claimed he was misquoted as saying "the police got a good hiding" in the 1985 Broadwater Farm racial disturbances.

To his credit, Grant's wise counsel and investigations into racism and xenophobia helped influence government actions following the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence. Pace University, New York awarded Grant an honorary doctorate in May 1993 in recognition of his work for justice and equal rights.

As his black parliamentary colleagues rose to the heights of New Labour's centrist government - Paul Boateng to the Home Office, Keith Vaz to the Foreign Office, and Diane Abbott to top-level state committees - Grant alone continued to support old-style trade union, populist democracy and the fight for black political empowerment within the Labour Party. Lee Jasper, a staunch Grant supporter, and chair of the National Black Alliance and the campaign group Operation Black Vote, said: "Bernie will be remembered as a hugely popular man of the people that every black man and woman should aspire to emulate".

Grant continued work as an MP despite undergoing a heart bypass operation and kidney failure in 1998. In the closing year of his life, Grant addressed the House of Commons saying a just conclusion to the Stephen Lawrence case "is the last chance for British society to tackle racism."

Bernie Grant died April 8, 2000, and in what was probably the largest black funeral that Britain has ever seen, his cortege threaded its way past key sites of his life. It stopped at Haringey Civic Centre, where he was once council leader, his Tottenham offices, then paused before hundreds of onlookers for a minute's silence in the once riot-torn Broadwater Farm Estate, where he had chaired the community centre. The cortege then moved on in quiet cadence to the funeral service at Alexandra Palace, a well-known north London landmark.

Six pallbearers bore the silver-metal casket. Lance Sergeant Jason Sumner, of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards, played the lament Flowers of the Forest. Among the hundreds in the congregation were Clive Lloyd, former West Indies cricket captain, and Jazzy B, founder member of the band Soul II Soul.

Mr Grant's English wife Sharon said: "In Bernie, we have lost a great fighter and a champion of justice for oppressed people." Members of his surviving family include his father Eric, brother Leyland, sisters Rosamund, Waveny and Effua, and his three sons by a former marriage, Steven, Alex and Jimmy.

Bernie Grant's achievements

1977: Elected to the Haringey borough council, north London.

1985: He became the first black leader of a local authority in Britain; and was prominent in criticising initial police actions in which Mrs. Cynthia Jarrett died.

1987: Elected as member of parliament for Tottenham.

1987: Intervened on behalf of family of Joy Gardner who died in a police immigration raid.

1987-1989: Organised the Parliamentary Black Caucus, a "natural focus for the political, economic and social advancement of Black people in Britain"; and launched the Black Parliamentarian magazine - "bringing parliament to the community".

Mid-1990s: Organised various Afro-centred organisations and movements, including the African Reparations Movement and the Global Trade Centre to link local businesses with partners in Africa and the Caribbean.

1995: Caused controversy by suggesting that a £100,000 option should be given to those wishing to return to Africa and the Caribbean, particularly the elderly who had given their working lives to Britain.

Late-1990s: Successfully fought for the release of Winston Silcott falsely convicted for the murder of a policeman during the Broadwater estate riots of 1985; supported a new centre for the Performing Arts in Tottenham; and campaigned for a statue to the Unknown Slave to be erected on a plinth in Trafalgar Square, central London. He also called for measures to end institutional racism in the police and state agencies exposed by the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report commissioned by the Home Office. He was posthumously awarded an honorary doctorate degree by Middlesex University for services to education and cultural development for young people.

This year sees exciting developments for Tottenham, North London with the unveiling of a brand new purpose built arts centre. Bernie Grant Arts Centre will open to the public in September and will be the jewel in the London Borough of Haringey's crown. The centre is conveniently close to Seven Sisters tube station (Victoria line) and is 20 minutes from central London.

The new state-of-the-art venue is at Town Hall Approach, London N15 and will include 300 seating auditorium, rehearsal spaces, areas to meet, a café, bar and a WiFi zone providing visitors to the centre with free wireless access.

The late Bernie Grant was the MP for Haringey until his death in 2000. He had a vision for a venue dedicated to celebrating the multicultural vibrancy of North London with a much needed performing arts space. Bernie Grant Arts Centre will be a catalyst for the regeneration of Tottenham, promoting local talent and attracting national and international audiences and arts practitioners.

The arts centre will champion new work, produce and host popular music, dance, comedy, multi-media and theatre events and offer accredited training courses. The venue will promote business enterprise as well as host conferences and events.

Chief Executive, Doreen Foster says: "Bernie Grant Arts Centre is a new space for a new generation. The venue is an amazing opportunity for the residents of Tottenham and Haringey and will be a major contribution to London's cultural landscape. One of the essential aims of the centre will be to develop and nurture artists from culturally diverse communities encouraging cross cultural collaboration and breaking down barriers across art forms."

Doreen was previously Head of Chief Executive's Office at Arts Council England and prior to that she was Scheme Director for West Midlands Social Economy Partnership. Ms Foster will head a staff 25. The centre will strive to employ locals and offer mentoring and professional development to its employees.

The £15 million building was designed by award winning architect, David Adjaye whose other work includes the Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, the Idea Store in London, which won the RIBA award in 2005, the Noble Peace Centre in Oslo and homes for Ewan McGregor and Chris Ofili.

The Bernie Grant Arts Centre is funded by the Millennium Commission, London Development Agency, European Regional Development Fund, Arts Council of England and London Borough of Haringey.

© Copyright 1997-2005 Chronicle World - first published 15/01/01
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