Grant, Militant Parliamentarian (1944-2000)
Labour 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."
Born February 17, 1944 in British Guiana, now Guyana,
Bernard Alexander Montgomery Grant was the son of school
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
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".
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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