Altheia Jones-Lecointe: the Black Panther who became a Mangrove Nine hero
Dr Altheia Jones-Lecointe describes her arrival in the UK as more than just a complete shock. The woman who would be labelled by Special Branch as “the brains behind the Black Panther Movement”, and go on to win a groundbreaking legal case against the government, says her move to Britain at the age of 20 was “mind-shattering”.
Swapping Trinidad for 1960s Britain was, she recounts, being transplanted from a “safe, warm place [where] your presence is normal” to a country where racism was so widespread she felt her very humanity was consistently under scrutiny. It was, she remembers, “a mind-boggling experience to recognise that you [aren’t] the person that you thought you were”.
Which is perhaps why, between 1965 and 1973, Jones-Lecointe was at the forefront of Black radical politics in Britain, using this short time to make some seismic changes to the country. This intensely private woman is remembered as the leader of the British Black Panther Movement (BPM), although her commitment to collective politics means she denies there was any such post. But what is certainly true is that, when Jones-Lacointe – now a retired senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies – won a groundbreaking victory as one of the Mangrove Nine (recently dramatised by Steve McQueen in Mangrove), she became one of Britain’s most remarkable political activists.
Jones-Lecointe was born in 1945 in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Her mother, Viola, was a dressmaker and owner of the Little Marvel Dress Shop; her father, Dunstan, was a school principal. Both held key roles in the People’s National Movement, founded in 1955 by the man who was to become the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams.
“My father was the chairman of the local party group and my mother was the secretary,” says Jones-Lecointe. “So, there was a political party group in our house.” As children, Jones-Lecointe and her younger sisters, Jennifer and Beverly, accompanied their parents as they campaigned and marched, listening to conversations about independence and how a post-colonial society should be organised.
In 1965, when she was 20, Jones-Lecointe left Trinidad to study chemistry at University College London. She was not particularly keen to come to Britain, she clarifies, but “the UK was the head of the house as far as our colonial history was concerned. So everybody who wanted to have a good-quality higher education would value coming to the UK because [it] was the mother country.”
In the first week of her course, she arrived at an introductory meeting with lecturers and her fellow students. “When I went in, the discussion that was going on just as I entered fell into a hush,” she remembers. Finally, “one brave soul ventured to speak: ‘Are you sure you’re in the right place?’ So, I said: ‘Well, yes, I came to read special chemistry.’” For Jones-Lecointe, it was telling. “It’s a question that continues to haunt black people in England: ‘Are you sure you’re in the right place?’”
While racism is often discussed as if it is just about racial slurs – which she certainly faced – Jones-Lecointe says this is just the tip of the iceberg. It “runs far deeper than discussing racism at the level of people calling you a ‘nig nog’ and [making] jokes. The whole thing is a physical, psychological and emotional revolution that the human person has to make.”
Her arrival coincided with rising discrimination towards Black and south Asian communities. In Notting Hill, west London, there were violent attacks by fascist groups such as the League of Empire Loyalists, White Defence League and the Union Movement, led by Oswald Mosley. The community was still reeling from the 1958 race riots and the unsolved, racist murder of the Antiguan carpenter Kelso Cochrane. Harassment by white residents and the police was commonplace.
Unsurprisingly, a horrified Jones-Lecointe felt she needed to “find a space with other people – to figure out what the hell this whole thing is all about”. She began joining the political activities at the West Indian students’ centre, and during her PhD, the university’s socialist society and students’ union.
One campaign took on the university’s racist housing practices, which it refused to change. Jones-Lecointe told an oral history project that the university “had two lists: one for landladies who would take black students and one for [those] who wouldn’t take black students”. The students demonstrated and the BPM came along to support them. This is, said Jones-Lecointe, “how I got involved and became aware that one had to do more work in the Black community than in the general socialist movement”.
The BPM had been formed in April 1968, by the Nigerian playwright Obi Egbuna, and its origins lay at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London, where Black radicals would regularly meet to discuss politics. At this point the BPM was a small group of men, including Jones-Lecointe’s eventual husband, Eddie Lecointe, Sam Sagay and Peter Martin, who organised demonstrations and produced a newsletter, Black Power Speaks.
But in July 1968, Egbuna was arrested after publishing a pamphlet titled What to Do If Cops Lay Their Hands on a Black Man at the Speaker’s Corner. The pamphlet merely advocated for collective self-defence in response to police harassment, but he was charged with inciting violence against police officers.
After his arrest, former members say Jones-Lecointe had the reins. She, however, sees it differently, pointing out the BPM was a collective. Speaking to a Global Woman’s Strike panel in 2012, she said: “I don’t know how suddenly I’ve become a ‘leader’, we didn’t recognise those categories.”
Nor were the BPM a political party, she says. “We called ourselves a ‘movement’ consciously because you didn’t have to be a member to be an activist, to take responsibility for what was happening to you. A movement is a conscious decision, to organise, to deal with the issues that face you.”
Former panthers talk about a “central core” of members, including Jones-Lecointe, her husband, Eddie, Keith Spencer, Ira O’Flaherty and the writers Farrukh Dhondy and Mala Sen who organised activities that included setting up Saturday schools to teach Black history, creating a youth league of the BPM, publishing their newsletter, Freedom News, canvassing door-to-door – and most importantly having a rigorous reading programme.
All Panthers were expected to study key texts – most importantly The Black Jacobins by CLR James. “The Black Jacobins stands as the Bible for inspiring us,” she says. “Anybody who is interested in how one changes a desperate situation, total defeat, total subjugation, [needs] to read the Black Jacobins and see what the people of Haiti did, and why today they continue to pay the price for their determination and their success against all the major European powers at the time.”
By 1970, the Panthers were mainly based in Finsbury Park, north London, and in Shakespeare Road in Brixton, south London. But there were also links with Black and Asian organisations across the country, and Panther movements around the world. At their height, they numbered about 300 people but, as former Panther and dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson has said: “Our presence was greater than our membership.”
Racist attacks from the far right and the police were one of the challenges they faced. Jones-Lecointe remembers one incident, which changed the life of a 17-year-old called Olive Morris. The BPM were selling their newsletter in Brixton. “One Saturday we were in the market and a tall Nigerian man was standing by his car being confronted by the police.” The police accused the man of stealing the car. “A big kerfuffle started up because we were around there selling our paper, and two young people from the Black Panther Movement, Olive and somebody else, Joelle, were arrested.”
Morris, who had rushed to the defence of the man, was brutally beaten by police. The man, it soon became clear, was not a car thief but a diplomat from the Nigerian embassy. Yet Jones-Lecointe remembers the home secretary, James Callaghan, saying on television that “the police were right [and just] doing their job”. This episode, Jones-Lecointe says, was just one example of the harassment they faced on a daily basis.
Classified documents discovered in 2010, by the historians Robin Bunce and Paul Field, show that Jones-Lecointe and the Black Power Movement were subject to a vast surveillance operation in the 1970s. Written by a special branch taskforce, the documents describe Jones-Lecointe as “academically brilliant” and “very militant”.
In 1970, Jones-Lecointe put these attributes to good use when she found herself fighting the police in a different form – through the courts in one the most significant legal cases in British history: the Mangrove Nine trial.
The Mangrove restaurant opened on All Saints Road, west London, in 1968, offering not just West Indian food, but a meeting place. In their biography of the broadcaster and activist Darcus Howe, Bunce and Field describe the restaurant as “decorated with traditional African art as well as with pictures of hip musicians”. It quickly began attracting famous diners – from Nina Simone and Bob Marley to Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye. White liberals and counterculture individuals such as Vanessa Redgrave and Colin MacInnes followed. “Everybody used to go there,” Jones-Lecointe says. “The lame, the halt and the blind could be found at the Mangrove.”
Yet the success of the restaurant and its owner, the Black entrepreneur Frank Critchlow, attracted police harassment. The police began to raid the restaurant frequently, citing unsubstantiated claims that there were drugs on the premises. Eventually the BPM and Howe, a soon-to-be member, decided to organise a demonstration in the restaurant’s defence.
On 9 August 1970, about 150 people took to the streets, listened to speeches by Howe and Jones-Lecointe, and marched towards the local police station. A staggering 700 police officers were sent out to meet them. As Jones-Lecointe recounts: “At a certain stage [the police] decided they were going to break up the demonstration and they had certain people who they targeted for arrest.” There was a violent confrontation on Portnall Road.
In court, Jones-Lecointe’s cross examination detailed the abuse she faced. She explained how she went to help a young black woman who “had blood on the left side of her face [and] was bawling and crying”. A policeman shouted at her, asking: “What do you want?” and warning: “If you don’t go, we’ll have you.” When Jones-Lecointe continued to help the distressed woman, five police grabbed the pair and started dragging them away, elbowing Jones-Lecointe in the process. “They were showing off and I got the worst of it,” she said.
The nine individuals arrested and charged with inciting a riot and affray were Jones-Lecointe, Howe, Critchlow, Godfrey Millett, Rupert Boyce, Rhodan Gordon, Anthony Innis, Rothwell Kentish and Barbara Beese. But what they did during their 55-day trial at the Old Bailey changed everything, as they adopted a radical strategy that put into practice their Black Power ideologies.
Some self-representation was deemed crucial as it encouraged community self-reliance and helped circumvent the obstructions of the criminal justice system. It was decided that Jones-Lecointe and Howe would represent themselves, so they could talk freely about their experiences of police racism. Meanwhile, Howe and Ian Macdonald QC, the barrister for Beese, invoked rights enshrined in Magna Carta to demand an all-Black jury.
Jones-Lecointe and Howe were talented orators, and succeeded in exposing police lies during the cross examinations – humiliating the prosecution and causing roars of laughter from the gallery. Macdonald later said of Jones-Lecointe: “She’s the kind of person who could read out the alphabet and you’d be transfixed.”
In a 1973 documentary, Jones-Lecointe described how the prosecution mischaracterised the Mangrove restaurant, using racially charged terminology. The police officer Frank Pulley, the instigator of the raids, described the Mangrove as a “den of iniquity” and said it was full of “local criminals, ponces and prostitutes”. When these comments were relayed to the local Labour MP, Bruce Douglas-Mann, a character witness for the nine and a frequent diner at the restaurant, he strongly rejected Pulley’s statements.
The nine were found not guilty of inciting a riot – a monumental victory for the Black community in Britain and a great embarrassment for the Metropolitan police and British state. The activist Selma James, who was a defence witness, pointed out on a Radio 4 documentary that: “If the Panthers had lost, the police would have felt empowered in what they were doing and therefore this case was a test case for all of us.”
Jones-Lecointe remembers Critchlow’s barrister, David Croft, trying to divide him from the other defendants, and a Trinidadian embassy representative attempting to do the same to her. In the end she became so incensed that, according to MacDonald, she ended up “bashing [Critchlow’s barrister] over the head” with her shoe. Jones-Lecointe has said she doesn’t remember that episode.
The trial marked the pinnacle of the Black Power Movement. Afterwards there were debates on whether to focus on gender, class or solely race. Some BPM members, such as Morris, left to form Black women’s groups, and others, such as Howe, went on to edit the journal Race Today. Jones-Lecointe continued campaigning with the BPM, which was renamed the Black Workers’ Movement, until 1974.
In Steve McQueen’s critically acclaimed Small Axe series, Jones-Lecointe was played by Letitia Wright. But when I ask what she thought of the film and the subsequent documentary, Black Power, by the director, she says she has not seen them. Since the BPM ended, Jones-Lecointe has divided her time between Trinidad and Britain as a physician, specialising in haematology, and a research scientist. Do her colleagues know of her activist achievements? “I doubt that,” she smiles. During our conversation, when I list her achievements, she leans forward, looks me in the eye, and says simply: “It’s not enough.”
I ask what she thinks of the Black Lives Matter movement. “I can’t talk for your generation,” she says. But she leaves me with some parting advice: “It’s your generation’s choice,” she says. “It’s Black people’s choice. If you want to be dead, play that. One day, we’ll wake up and do what the living do – which is to live!”