Influential Women Series: Olive Morris
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
In this new series of Cheat Sheets, we are celebrating the lives and achievements of influential women, as chosen by our writers.
First up, Elaine presents community leader and activist, Olive Morris.
Who was Olive Morris?
Born on the 26th June 1952 in Jamaica, before moving to London at the age of nine, Olive Morris was an activist throughout the 1970s. Often overlooked by British history, she was an influential voice for the black community. She went on to study at Manchester University from 1975 to 1978. Morris became involved with the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group. Olive Morris died on July 12th, 1979 at 27 years old.
What did she campaign for?
Olive Morris spent her life campaigning for racial and gender equality, as well as the expansion of squatters’ rights.
Political and Social Activism
In 1969, Nigerian diplomat Clement Gomwalk was attacked by police officers in Brixton. The officers refused to believe Gomwalk when he told them he was a diplomat. Instead, they proceeded to beat him in front of a crowd of bystanders. Olive Morris tried to intervene and said that she was treated brutally by the police. She was arrested on charges of assault due to her intervention. When detained at the police station, he was strip-searched and harassed.
In 1973, Morris and fellow activist Liz Obi squatted at a building located at 121 Railton Road in Brixton. The building became a hub for political activism and community meetings.
She found or co-found various groups and organisations which strove to combat racial issues. One of these groups was the Brixton Black Women’s Group (1973-1985). Founded in 1973, the organisation for black women in Brixton found its inspiration in the Black Panther movement sweeping the US at the time, with Morris finding herself as a British counterpart. She joined the British Black Movement in 1968. It was one of the first groups for black women in the UK with the purpose to solve racial and sexual injustices.
The founding of this group led onto the development of the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (1978-1982) along with Stella Dadzie. The organisation was called “a watershed in the history of Black women’s right activism”. The OWAAD functioned as an umbrella organisation. They brought together groups with a range of interests and different priorities . According to the British Library, the group made a “huge contribution to placing the experience of black and Asian women on the women’s liberation agenda”. One goal of the group was to campaign for the abolishment of Section 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act which permitted the arrest of people on suspicion that a crime was about to occur.
Black communities were often the victims of heinous crimes and police intimidation. Morris quickly became a prominent figure in the campaign against racial injustice and oppression.
What legacy did she leave behind?
In 1986, Lambeth Council honoured Olive by naming the Council offices at 18 Brixton Hill Olive Morris House. They also named a playground in Myatt’s Fields, Olive Morris Gardens. In 2006, the Remembering Olive Collective made an online resource available, depicting her work and her life. She left behind a legacy of extraordinary activism.