Do you remember Olive Morris?

Red Chidgey reports on a collective of women using the internet to reactivate forgotten activist histories

July 25, 2010
6 min read

In 2006, while researching the history of black British activism at Peckham library, Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre came across a photo from a Black Panther demonstration at Coldharbour Lane in Brixton. Within a crowd of men, the image captured a barefoot woman, fag in hand, holding a placard that commanded ‘Black Sufferer Fight Police Pig Brutality’. That mesmerising figure was Olive Morris: the memorial name also given to the housing benefit office Lopez de la Torre had dealt with after moving to Brixton from Uruguay.

Intrigued by the convergence, Lopez de la Torre turned to Google. ‘I went online and there was nothing about her. And then I went to libraries and archives and there was nothing about her there either.’

Lambeth Archives hadn’t anything on file on Morris, but the staff there knew of her and put Lopez de la Torre in touch with Liz Obi, a close friend of Morris who had organised a Remembering Olive exhibition back in 2000.

Obi started filling Lopez de la Torre in. Before her death in 1979, Morris had been involved in the squatters’ movement, the British Black Panthers, and the black women’s movement – co-founding the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent. But what Obi remembered most was the bangles and bicycle that always accompanied Morris and the lesson she had taught her: never to be afraid of anything.

The two women began collecting and consolidating materials relating to Morris – college essays, correspondence with community organisations, albums of personal pictures, notes of condolence after her death (the artefacts are now housed in Lambeth Archives). Together they also founded the inter-generational Remembering Olive Collective (ROC) in 2008.

‘She wasn’t someone who was famous in the sense of leaders,’ explains Lopez de la Torre of the need to chronicle Olive’s life. ‘She also died very young, at 27. Maybe she would have become an MP or an academic or been able to produce some more permanent form of documentation, but she was really a grass-roots activist.’

Collective portrait

Lopez de la Torre set up the blog Do You Remember Olive Morris? as the public face of the project in 2007. Its purpose was to create ‘a collective portrait of Olive Morris’, blending oral histories with information about the political currents of the time, encouraging people who knew Olive to also get in touch. Monthly meetings with the all-female collective followed soon after.

Through gathering information and testimony about Morris, ROC created grass-roots histories that honoured connections, creativity and participation – even if it also meant bending the rules of laying down history proper. ‘History is a discipline that is very structured, that has all these laws,’ Lopez de la Torre explains. ‘But a lot of community groups are being trained in these things. Where before oral history would be done by proper oral historians, now it’s done by all those wannabe oral historians who did a couple of days training and are going in there and completely mongrelising oral history. I’m all for it!’

There is a strong need to recuperate activist histories. In a book published by the collective last year, Obi warns that ‘Olive was part of a black youth movement that had developed in Britain in the 1970s, a generation that had fought against racism of the state and society but whose contribution seemed to have been lost somewhere between the Windrush arrivals and the 1981 riots.’ Following Obi, the publication’s title Do You Remember Olive Morris? begins to take on another angle: if you don’t remember Olive, why not?

The fact that grass-roots histories are so poorly remembered – especially those of women, people of colour, those disenfranchised or living in poverty – is no simple accident. Propping up the status quo with selective examples of the past feeds assumptions that change only happens periodically, in ways that can be marked and contained by state-sanctioned memorials or anniversaries.

These narratives also naturalise the power relations of dominant groups: our collective cultural memory consistently fails to highlight continuous, linked up, grass-roots struggles for social change. Ditto to facilitating the transference of political experience or understanding the contours of colonialism and imperialism, for example. That many people do not remember Olive Morris – have never even heard of her – means that they cannot build on her strength or learn from her successes.

Activist strategy

Reclaiming radical histories has long been an activist strategy – from the self-publicising of the Women’s Social and Political Union to the inner city oral history projects that Lopez de la Torre is involved in today. To legitimate people’s lives as a form of history is a powerful form of activism; to document activist history is to create a toolkit for the future.

But there are limits to using new media to create these kinds of political archives. Lopez de La Torre notes, ‘Lots of people I work with have little internet access or struggle to even read emails. There is a lot of emphasis on the futuristic vision that technology is going to make everything wonderful and it’s about all these voices, and it’s really not. It’s still pretty much a monoculture of people who are educated and have the technology.’

The ROC project has had many successes through the blog, however. A major victory was ensuring that the plaque and photo of Olive that had been taken down during a refurbishment of Olive Morris House was reinstated – a long and frustrating process that came to fruition after two years of campaigning. Thanks to the collective, the council’s commemoration also filled out to include a small window display in the building and a dedicated web page.

‘I think it’s interesting how histories have been deactivated and have to be started all over again,’ Lopez de La Torre observes. Just don’t call the process empowering. ‘I hate that word, empowerment. It’s very heroic. All the women who were part of the ROC collective were strong, independent women already involved in community activism. But we brought everything to another level.’

With a collectively produced book, blog, range of community events and deposited archive materials, Olive Morris’s legacy shines on fierce and strong, helping to disrupt the silence and invisibility surrounding black British feminist history. Much can be learnt from the celebration and struggles of Morris, whose fight and example remains current to life in the UK and beyond today.

Red Chidgey is a DIY feminist historian. As part of her PhD on feminist media and cultural memory, she is looking for people with experience or knowledge about feminist media projects from the late 1960s till now.

Her research blog is feministmemory.wordpress.com

ROC: rememberolivemorris.wordpress.com


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greenwald speaks Trump, War on Terror, and citizen activism
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas


6