This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the murder of Kelso Cochrane. Two commemorative events were held, an unofficial one at Kelso’s graveside in Kensal Green Cemetery and the other official one at the place where he was attacked, off Golborne Road.
On such a sober occasion, lessons of the past can enlighten the present and the future by comparing the events and context of 1958-59 with the present day, and by noting the struggle against racism since then and what it says to us about resisting racism now.
Kelso Cochrane was born in Antigua in 1927 and migrated to London in 1954, settling in Notting Hill. On 17 May 1959, while walking home from Paddington General Hospital where he had received treatment after a work accident, he was attacked by a group of white youths and stabbed to death. More than 1,200 people attended Kelso’s funeral.
Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement was active in Notting Hill at that time, and Colin Jordan’s White Defence League had its headquarters in Princedale Road. The previous year, a series of violent attacks on black people had culminated in the Notting Hill “race riots” in which white mobs of up to 400 people attacked the houses of West Indian residents.
In 1961 a local Mosleyite named Peter Dawson told the Sunday People that a Union Movement member was responsible for killing Kelso. However, the police denied that the attackers were motivated by racism and nobody has ever been charged with the murder.
Looking back on the terrible events of 1958-59 – the Notting Hill riots and the murder of Kelso Cochrane – we are able to see how far we have come since then. Today, the sight of 400-strong mobs of white racists rampaging through North Kensington or indeed any multi-ethnic area of inner London, attacking the homes of minority communities, seems inconceivable.
Of course, racism and fascism remain a threat – the election of a fascist to the London Assembly last May bears witness to that. But the BNP’s support is mainly restricted to a few areas of outer London. In inner London, people are at ease with multiculturalism and diversity, and the far right are marginalised. In the West Central GLA constituency which includes Notting Hill, the BNP got a paltry 2.4% of the vote in last year’s Assembly elections.
This situation is a tribute to the activists who have fought racism and fascism during the half a century since Kelso’s death.
It was the whipping up of an atmosphere of violent racism by Mosley’s Union Movement and Jordan’s White Defence League that led directly to Kelso’s murder. Due to the subsequent campaigning by anti-racists, in 1965 the Race Relations Act criminalised incitement to racial hatred, so that racists and fascists are no longer free to behave like that today.
And the struggle against racism was conducted on a cultural level too. The 1958 riots and Kelso’s murder produced the train of events that led to the launch of the Notting Hill Carnival – a celebration of Caribbean culture that brings together hundreds of thousands of Londoners from all of our city’s diverse communities.
It is not accidental that since his election last year the BNP’s London Assembly Member Richard Barnbrook has repeatedly used Mayor’s Question Time to attack the Notting Hill Carnival and call for its suspension.
In that context, I think it is a disgrace, and an act of appalling political irresponsibility, that the current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has cancelled Rise, the biggest anti-racist festival in Europe. I am pleased to report that at the next meeting of the London Assembly my colleague Jennette Arnold will be presenting a mass petition calling on Boris to reinstate Rise.
Unless there is a continuous struggle against racism and fascism they will return again. The best way that we can commemorate the death of Kelso Cochrane is to continue that struggle today.
And we also need to get justice for Kelso’s family, who have to live with the thought that his killers may still be walking the streets. At the official unveiling of the plaque on Sunday the family made a plea for the individuals who committed the crime to be found and prosecuted – not because they are looking for revenge but simply because they want justice.