Coca Clarke is an 85-year-old Black Power activist and she is still an active member of the vibrant Moss Side community, a community that – despite its many laudable efforts – struggles to shake off the lazy stereotypes and assumptions placed on an entire community by the media since the ‘gang wars’ of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
I met Coca Clarke at an event in Moss Side, with Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver, organised by the Northern Police Monitoring Project on 20 June 2018. The panel and the audience were discussing Moss Side, police brutality, racism and various initiatives and proposals for an overdue change of narrative on Moss Side, one that places the community and its livelihood at the centre.
Coca Clarke stood up and spoke briefly about her experience as a Black Power activist in Moss Side in the 1960s and, having a strong interest in the Black Power movement, I asked her if she would be available for an interview about her experience. She kindly agreed to it, and this is the result of the conversation we held at her home in Moss Side.
Would you like to tell us something about yourself and growing up in England?
I was born in Manchester in 1933 and brought up in Blackpool. I did all my schooling in Blackpool. My father was the first black man to hold African shows in England about Africans and how they lived. He had a place on Blackpool beach.
It was kind of political all our lives, in the sense that we knew that we were black. A lot of black children in those days didn’t accept their colour, but we were brought up to be proud of being African. We had to walk straight! My dad used to do that [mimics gesture] at the back, to make us walk straight with our shoulders. ‘Don’t let anybody touch your hair! You’re not freaks!’.
Before the 1950s, they tolerated us, we were something to look at: ‘Oh, you’ve got lovely hair! And lovely curls!’. There’s no curl in our hair, it’s all kink! They’d touch you, they’d take a good look. My father used to go mad! ‘If I find out you let anybody touch your hair, you are going to be in trouble!’ He would not let us be ridiculed. I’d be out with my mum when I was a little girl and they’d say: ‘Oh, look at them piccaninnies!’.
In 1949 we moved to Manchester, because my dad wanted to be around his own people, and I left school not been able to read or write. Everything I know to this day is self-taught. Schooling didn’t teach me anything, because I was dyslexic.
Which country in Africa was your father from?
Nigeria. Cross River, the old Calabar, it used to be the centre of Nigeria once. My father did go back to Africa, eventually. He talked a lot to us about Africa when we were growing up. I’ve been to Africa, but I’ve never been to Calabar.
We’ve always had to fight, we had to battle in school, because we were the only black family in Blackpool at the time. In those days they said ‘coloured’. I’ve always had to fight from being grown up being called the n-word, and one time – I was 13 – I had to fight a big woman because she said: ‘Go down the other end of the street, where you mother is married to a n- man!’
In 1934, my mother, who was an English white woman, got a house in Blackpool. The neighbours changed a lot when they found out she was married to a black man. She was a teacher in a college, and they took the job away from her because she had married a black man. My mother went through hell to bring us up. Those women, in those days, went through hell to bring us up. I admired them.
Was racism worse then or now, with the internet?
It’s getting worse. Britain was supposed to be this country that didn’t have racism. They talked about America and how bad racism was in America. Ours has always been covert racism, underneath racism, also in the education system. That’s the worst type of racism.
You were born here, so you are English and British. What does this mean to you?
There is still a law saying that they can deport me because I’ve got an African father. I’ve fostered for 31 years. You have to go to meetings to do it, and one was on immigration. The clerk said to me: ‘Do you know that they can deport you?’. I said: ‘Don’t talk stupid, I was born here!’. Then she brought the paper and showed it to me. I could not believe it. They could still deport me if they wanted to. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did this to me under Theresa May.
What happened after you moved to Manchester?
I got married and had my kids. I had my first child when I was 19, in 1952. Then I had four more, then I had Janie. I am a mother of 7 daughters, and I made them strong and conscious of being black. I used to get my kids going leafleting too. Do you know the Kath Locke Centre in Moss Side? They named the building after my sister, she was very political and into organisation.
How did you get involved with Black Power groups?
In the late ‘60s, around 1968, this man, Ron Phillips, came to Moss Side. He was going around talking to people. We started talking and we got interested. He did make us more aware of the politics in Black Power and how they worked together trying to better the communities wherever they were.
Then, you know when in an organisation men think they should be at the top? This is how the Abasindi group came about. We stood up against them. We took over St Mary’s School and formed the Abasindi group. We did leafleting and took over St Mary’s School and we stayed in there for 10 days and 10 nights. We occupied because we had no play centres for black kids, we had nothing for black kids.
We opened the nursery in St Mary’s, as a play school for kids where mothers could just come and leave the kids while they did their shopping, you know, things like that. We had it open for about six months before they could get us out. We charged the mothers about two shillings a day, but we provided all the food. We looked for funding for that. We went out begging on the streets with boxes, told people what we were: Black Power. Some people agreed with us, some people didn’t.
We taught typing, we taught kids to read and write, we did sewing and craft work, dancing, poetry, everything. My sister got funding for St Mary’s and they worked with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau [to give legal advice] for [issues with] the police when they had the riots in Manchester. We opened St Mary’s to anybody who got injured. We’d do our best for them or get them to hospital. We tried to help the community as much as we could, but the police were on us. The women put a lot of work in it, a lot of work.
Then we got the George Jackson House, on Withington Road. We got funding for that too. We used to go and find teenagers living on the streets, and bring them home. At the end of the ‘60s, we did a march on the Cathedral. We took it over, with our black berets and everything, with about 15 others. We did not let any of the younger kids come, it was just from 16 upwards. They arrested a boy. He was 16, and they bashed him that bad in the police station that he had to have a plate in his head. He used to live here in Withington for a while. He was never right afterwards. It got very serious.
What was the feedback from the community about your work?
A lot of young girls, we really made them conscious about their education, about going to college.
The reason why Black Power was so popular in the US was that the Americans had been slaves, so all that hatred had built up for generations. So, from generation to generation, they had something really to hold on to. We weren’t slaves, we didn’t have anything to hold on to. The press gave us a bad name, they did everything to put down everybody, and it did take a lot of people away from us, they isolated us. And people had to think about their jobs, because they’d lose their job if they were involved. We had to be careful.
How did you hear about the Black Panthers?
It was in the news. I also met Huey Newton when he sneaked into England in the ‘70s. I met him at my sister’s house in Moss Side. I met Bobby Seale too, and I admired them. And, to me, the most inspiring thing I ever saw in my life was when the two black athletes stood up and did the salute at the Olympic Games, it was absolutely marvellous! Black power gave me an incentive to bring my children up political, all my children are.
When you were an activist in the ‘60s and ‘70s, did you work with other civil rights groups or students?
We believed – this was Black Power theory – that the whites have to fight for their poor people and we had to fight for our people. You are a white person. You will see the fire, but you won’t feel the fire. We feel the fire. You can smell racism off people.
What is your experience with the police?
In 1960, my daughter was six weeks old, I was still feeding her, and it was my sister’s birthday or my birthday. It was January, and my mum said: ‘You can go out with Kathleen’ – my sister – ‘and her husband’. We were walking down Darcy Street (that’s an old part of Moss Side), and these Irish people came up and said: ‘Oh, there’s another big n-word puncher!’. So, I said: ‘How do I know you are not a Nazi?’. A policeman came, said nothing to them and arrested me. They took me to the police station and put me in this room. My sister comes up, they say: ‘Go in that room’. ‘Why?’ she asked, ‘Is she in there?’. ‘Yeah’. So, she comes in. ‘What are they doing to you?’ I said: ‘I don’t know!’ Then her husband came looking for us. ‘Go in that room.’ They arrested us, the three of us! That was 1960.
My sister could have been a magistrate, but she didn’t do it because she said: ‘I’m not sitting on a bench to put my black boys down, or black young girls down, when the society is driving them into it in the first place.’
It’s the whole system [that is biased against black people], it’s a fact. I don’t blame some of the young black people for getting in trouble, because I’ve been there myself. I don’t blame them, because when you go out there and you get frustrated, you know that you are not going to win, whatever you do. So sometimes you say: ‘I don’t give a damn! I’m gonna fight, or ‘I’m gonna do this.’
Do you think Black Power is still a useful concept today and can it be used to organise young black people?
Yes. The fight against racism, I would say, it should be pure black, because they understand one another. I’ve been in committee rooms where there’s been whites and they would say: ‘But you can’t do that!’. ‘What do you mean I can’t do it?’. ‘People will say you are racist!’. ‘Well, I’m racist then, because I’m doing it!’ Even now, let’s face the fact, I get pulled up sometimes about it in conversations with people. It’s not politically correct to make some statements. But that’s how I feel. I’m not calling any race. I’m telling you how we feel and what we need. They always get us because we are in the white man’s country.
I’ve been to Africa, Ghana. The first time I went it was a cultural shock. I felt so relieved. It was marvellous, it was inspiring, and I just loved it. It’s so nice, because you go in shops, banks and you see many black people in business, lawyers, doctors. We’ve got no power at all in Britain. Only if you are a singer, then you might get to the very top, if they don’t pull you back. We battle on, the best we can, I don’t see any end to it. And I don’t think that we will ever be united, white and black. But we have to work together in some ways because we are living in a white society, regardless of whether we like it or not.
Now, this is a thing that we have to teach our kids: don’t just sit back and take it. You’ve got to step forward and show them that you are not stupid. This is where education comes in for the young people, and it starts at home. White people are not going to educate us. The black parent has to educate the children, you need to start from the cradle.
Francesca Nottola and Jez Djossou
You can read the full-length interview with Coca here.