Ham & High: Camden civil rights activist Selma James remembers ‘crucial’ Mangrove 9 trial

Sam Volpe COMMENTS Published: 4:36 PM December 10, 2020    Updated: 3:25 PM December 15, 2020

A still from the BBC’s Small Axe episode about the trial of the Mangrove 9. Among the defendants was Altheia Jones-LeCointe, here played by Letitia Wright. – Credit: BBC/McQueen Limited/Kieron McCarron

“What McQueen saw in it was what we experienced. it was a crucial moment in the anti-racist struggle.”

Selma James was one of the founders of the Crossroads Women’s Centre, and in 1970 she was also a witness who gave testimony at the landmark Mangrove 9 trial. 

The trial was recently dramatised by Oscar-winner Steve McQueen as part of the BBC’s Small Axe film series.

Selma said she was on-screen for “perhaps thirty seconds”, and she told the Ham&High how momentous the trial had been for the UK civil rights movement.

Selma James pictures in 2015 at an International Women’s Day conference held in Hampstead. – Credit: Polly Hancock

“They won what had not been won before, which was an admission from the judge there had been racism in the police force,” she said.

The trial saw seven men and two women charged with incitement to riot over a march in protest against the racially-motivated police targeting of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill. The Mangrove was a meeting place for the Black community. 

In addition to the Steve McQueen film, the Global Women’s Strike group, based from the Crossroads Centre, also produced a “final cut” of their own documentary about the trial — it features interviews with lawyer Ian Macdonald and defendant Althea Jones-LeCointe, and is being screened virtually by the Global Women’s Strike movement, which Selma founded, as part of a fundraising drive.

Ian Macdonald QC in the Global Women’s Strike film. – Credit: Global Women’s Strike

She paid tribute to Ian, who died in 2019 after a lifetime fighting civil rights causes, and Althea who now lives in the Caribbean. 

“His death was a great loss,” she said. “He was in and out of our centre, we always wanted his advice on something! Ian was always forthcoming, always available. He was a truly antiracist person, and to have that in a lawyer, in a barrister is really great.”ADVERTISING

“And Althea, when you start to listen to her you don’t want to stop. She’s that kind of compelling speaker, a compelling storyteller.”

“We made the film because we asked Althea: ‘How did you win?’ People need to know how to express themselves in action in ways that produce liberation, antiracism, anti-sexism and reduce discrimination against immigrants.”

Altheia Jones-LeCointe in the Global Women’s Strike documentary, and (inset) on the march in 1970. – Credit: Global Women’s Strike

Selma, whose husband CLR James wrote a history of the Haitian revolution called The Black Jacobins, said Althea spoke of how important inspiration from groups like the Haitians — who ended slavery in 1804 — was to the defendants in the Mangrove 9 trial. 

GWS is hoping to collect funds for the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund and running a “week of action” in aid of the Haitian cause from December 10. “We’re very glad that one struggle against racism is supporting another,” she said. 

Looking back on the trial itself, Selma said: “It was an extraordinary courtroom. The gallery was full of supporters of the defendants. It was a very friendly courtroom to enter as someone who had come to defend the defendants, and to speak about how concerned parents were about what was happening.”

She said both the BBC film and the GWS documentary represented “a coming together of the anti-racist movement internationally”, and that the anti-racism movement had long been building on the result of the Mangrove 9 trial.

“People felt that people of colour had a voice, that the case they were making was going to be acknowledged. And at least it’d be public, it’d not be hidden any more. she said.

She said the BLM movement had been a much needed “occasion of the reviewing of the British Empire, what it actually did rather than how it presents itself”. and said it was “a momentous time”.

Police racism, she said, “hasn’t stopped”, she said. “But now everyone knows it. That’s the change. Public information is tremendously important. The movement has said we’re not going allow anybody to hide the facts of our lives and that they are openly under threat.” 

Selma, 90, was born in Brooklyn, and she said the political consciousness of young people, whether in highlighting systemic racism, poverty, or the climate crisis, gave her hope.  

“There are many white people, especially young people, who want to abolish racism,” she said. “They’re tired of it. That’s a new spirt that exists widely. They’re fed up with poverty generally, but especially the poverty of people of colour which is striking.”

Citing Marcus Rashford’s efforts to raise awareness of the plight of families unable to feed their children, she added: “There’s a feeling that the pandemic has pointed to what matters in life, which is life, and that carers are important, including mothers. This the spirit of the time that I feel these two films represent.”

To see the How The Mangrove 9 Won film and find out more about Global Women’s Strike, visit globalwomenstrike.net/event-how-the-mangrove-nine-won/