As at the time the Nigerian playwright and political activist Obi Benue Egbuna went to the United Kingdom in the 1960s, his dream was to become an electrical engineer. But over time, he realized that he must become a social engineer. Born in Ozubulu, Anambra State, Nigeria, he studied at the University of Iowa and Howard University, Washington, DC, before moving to England in 1961, living there until 1973.
Shaped by the social climate and inspired by the Black Power movement in the U.S., particularly the words of African-American activist Stokely Carmichael, Egbuna founded the British Black Panthers (BBP) or the Black Panther Movement (BPM) in 1968 in London’s Notting Hill.
At the time, people of African, Caribbean, and South Asian descent in Britain, who were mainly immigrants from former British colonies, were considered to be “Black”, according to BlackPast. Between 1961 to 1964, reports said that the Black population in Britain grew from 300,000 to 1 million, and that resulted in more racial and class problems. Indeed, racism was deeply embedded within British society amid stories of police brutality against Black people. What’s more, Black people were being racially profiled and targeted by authorities. They were sometimes beaten up or had drugs planted on them.
Amid these concerns and demonstrations against the Vietnam War, a radical congress titled the “Dialectics of Liberation” was organized in north London in July 1967. The congress, whose main speaker was Carmichael, had in attendance political activists, freedom fighters, and radical academics. At the congress, Carmichael called for the creation of militant Black Power in the UK to fight against the racist politics of the White British establishment, as one account stated.
Following that congress, the Black Power movement in the UK started taking shape and anti-racist organizations such as the Universal Coloured People’s Association (UCPA) and the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) adopted Black Power ideology.
Not too long after Carmichael’s speech at the congress, Egbuna was elected chairman of the UCPA, which published a manifesto titled “Black Power in Britain”. But in April 1968 when Egbuna was re-elected chairman, he turned it down and disclosed that he was forming the British Black Panthers (BBP). This followed a networking visit to the U.S.
The BBP was in its early years a male-dominated group, largely consisting of West Indians, Black Africans, and South Asians. Even though it was not an official chapter of the Black Panthers, it was the first Panther organization outside the U.S. Adopting the Panther’s symbols of berets, military jackets, and raised fists, the BBP under Egbuna organized demonstrations, produced Black Power literature, and fought racism and police brutality in Britain. Soon, it was targeted by the police as its members were portrayed by the media as violent extremists.
In July 1968, Egbuna was arrested for allegedly inciting the murder of policemen in his pamphlet entitled “What to Do If Cops Lay Their Hands On A Black Man At The Speaker’s Corner”. The document, which urged collective self-defense, stated: “The moment the cops lay their hands on a Black brother, it is the duty of [the] Black crowd [to] surge forward like one big Black steam roller to catch up with the cop … till the brother is rescued, freed and made to flee at once.”
While Ebguna was in prison, Althea Jones, a Trinidad-born Ph.D. student at the University of London, became the leader of BBP. By 1970, Jones had started “grass-roots organizing of local Black communities in England around each community’s issues of racial discrimination in jobs, housing, education, and medical and legal services,” according to BlackPast.
The BBP would also move their headquarters to Brixton, a poorer Black community in London. At the time, the movement had branches in north, south, and west London with each branch having around 100 members. As the BBP continued to fight racial discrimination and oppression just like the Panthers in the U.S., the police continued to harass them. The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant on All Saints Road in Ladbroke Grove, London, was repeatedly raided by police, prompting a protest march by locals. Nine leaders of the BBP including Jones, Darcus Howe, and Barbara Beese were falsely charged with riot and affray after the protest march.
Their trial made headlines following their appeal for an all-Black jury and their decision for three members to self-represent in court. At the end of the day, the jury acquitted all nine defendants. And for the first time, a judge publicly acknowledged that there was “evidence of racial hatred” within the London police, BlackPast wrote.
The BBP, throughout its existence, did engage in legal advocacy for Black people in Britain and created a Youth League and the Freedom News newspaper. It also organized a march of 10,000 people protesting the Immigration Bill of 1971 that reduced Black immigration, according to BlackPast. By 1973, the BBP started by Egbuna had split into two factions and ended not too long after.
In 2014, Egbuna’s son, Obi Egbuna Jr, spoke about his father’s political activism in Britain. “My father’s political activity was shaped by the social climate. Walter Rodney and his brother Eddie were there, Fela Kuti was there studying music, Tony Martin the Garveyite was there, and Maurice Bishop was there studying law,” Egbuna Jr. was quoted by San Francisco Bay View.
“When my father returned to Nigeria in 1973, he went to see Fela perform, and they embraced like long-lost brothers. Fela didn’t hesitate to tell people about the bold and courageous work my father did in the U.K. “
Egbuna Jr. however stressed that his father cannot be reduced to his work and time in the U.K. “My father became the director of ECBS television in Nigeria and the director of the Writers Workshop. My father worked in the government of Murtala Muhammad, who was assassinated almost in the same manner as Patrice Lumumba in the Congo.”
As a novelist and playwright, Egbuna, three years before founding the BBP, wrote “Wind Versus Polygamy,” which later was adapted into a play and was colonial Britain’s submission to the First World and Arts Festival in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966, Egbuna Jr. said.
“My father had cultural workbooks like ‘The Anthill,’ ‘Madness of Didi’, ‘The Minister’s Daughter: Diary of a Homeless Prodigal’, ‘Black Candle For Christmas’, ‘The Rape of Lysistrata’ and ‘The Emperor of the Sea.’ This gave African writing on the continent a militant nationalist and pan African character, and Black Power was the springboard.”