Protesting Discrimination in Bristol | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
A commemorative plaque of the Bristol Bus Boycott showing a red building, a bus, and several people.

Protesting Discrimination in Bristol

Students use the historical case study of the Bristol Bus Boycott to examine strategies for bringing about change in our communities.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

lesson copy


English — UK


Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Lesson

In previous lessons, students learned how individuals and groups joined in solidarity against antisemitism during the Battle of Cable Street of 1936, preventing Oswald Mosley’s Fascist march through London’s East End. They also considered how public art can memorialise an event, reminding the community of a neighbourhood’s legacy of solidarity and connecting the past to the present day. Building on the ideas of civic participation that the previous lessons started to explore, in this lesson students will learn about resources and strategies available to them for creating positive changes in their communities.

Legal scholar Martha Minow has observed that one of the biggest barriers that individuals face in getting involved is that it is hard to know what actual steps to take: “Often times we see something that's unjust and we wonder, ‘Where do I go? What do I do?’” In an effort to help individuals identify concrete actions to take when they “choose to participate,” Minow developed a “levers of power” framework to map out the organisations, institutions, and technologies that can enable us to strengthen the impact of our voices and our actions. In this lesson, students will watch two videos to learn about the Bristol Bus Boycott and then discuss how the boycott’s leaders tapped into the levers of power available to them to raise awareness and influence public figures and local community members to support changes in the bus company’s discriminatory hiring policies. Students will then have the opportunity to think about which levers of power are most accessible to them and how they might use these to bring about changes they would like to see in their own communities.

What must individuals do and value in order to bring about a more humane, just, and compassionate society?

  • What can the Bristol Bus Boycott teach us about the most effective way to make a difference in our communities?
  • Which strategies are best for bringing about the changes we want to see in our schools and local communities?
  • Students will be able to explain the strategies that the leaders of the Bristol Bus Boycott used that led to a change in the bus company’s discriminatory hiring practices.
  • Students will use the historical case study of the Bristol Bus Boycott to reflect on how they might apply the “levers of power” to take action in the face of discrimination and injustice in their own schools and local communities.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 7 activities
  • 2 videos
  • 3 handouts
  • 1 extension activity

After the end of World War II and the passing of the 1948 British Nationality Act, which permitted individuals with British passports to enter and settle in the UK, the Caribbean community in the UK grew significantly. They participated in post-war rebuilding efforts and over time established family and professional roots. By 1958, there were approximately 1,300 West Indians in Bristol, less than 1% of the city’s population; however, their unemployment rate was approximately twice that of white residents. 1 By 1960, the West Indian population had grown rapidly to 3,000 in Bristol, and their unemployment rate remained significantly higher than that of white residents. West Indians, along with other immigrants from Asia and South-East Asia, faced discrimination when seeking employment and housing—with some boarding houses posting signs that read “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs,” as well as the threat of attack by violent gangs of young white men called Teddy Boys. 2 By 1963, the West Indian population in Bristol had increased to 7,000 people, and with this rapid influx of black workers and their families came heightened racial tension and discrimination. As conservative MP Ronald Bell commented in a 1963 Commons debate:

Behind all is fear. Fear for standards, fear for material interests, fear of excessive fertility on the part of the immigrants, of being swamped in our own country. They [the whites] fear miscegenation. 3

Before the passing of the Race Relations Acts in 1965 and 1968, there were no laws in the UK to protect individuals against racial discrimination in the workplace. Some cities, such as London, Wolverhampton, and Manchester, employed black bus drivers and conductors. 4 In Bristol, the state-owned Bristol Omnibus Company and the Passenger Group of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU)—which all transport workers, black and white, were required to join—both denied that a “colour bar” existed. But the bus company only employed black workers in maintenance jobs, and the Passenger Group of the TGWU had passed a resolution in January 1955 that black workers should not be employed on the buses as drivers or conductors. 5 By the early 1960s, no black or Asian man or woman had ever been hired to work on buses in Bristol despite their efforts to apply for open positions.

In 1961, the Bristol Evening Post exposed the colour bar in a series of articles about the Bristol Omnibus Company, claiming that the bus company refused to hire qualified non-white workers despite a shortage of drivers and conductors. In fact, there were many open positions thanks to a high turnover rate at the company due, in part, to the low wages and long hours. 6 Drivers and conductors relied on these positions remaining vacant so they could work overtime, putting in the 100+ hour weeks necessary to make just above the average weekly wage in Bristol. 7 In response to the Bristol Evening Post articles, the regional secretary of the TGWU again denied the existence of a colour bar, while the bus company blamed the workers’ prejudice for the lack of non-white drivers and conductors. However, Ian Patey, the general manager of the bus company, offered a more revealing explanation of their hiring policy when he stated that West Indians “. . . were employed in the garage but this was labouring work in which capacity most employers were prepared to accept them.” 8

In 1962, Ena Hackett, a Jamaican immigrant, was rejected when she sought employment as a bus conductor with the Bristol Omnibus Company, despite having applied for a posted opening and meeting all of the qualifications. Motivated by Ena’s case and the other discrimination they observed and experienced in Bristol, a group of young black activists—Roy Hackett (Ena’s husband), Owen Henry, Audley Evans, and Prince Brown—formed the West Indian Development Council to advocate for the rights of members of the black community.

The idea for the boycott took shape after members of the West Indian Development Council met Paul Stephenson, a university educated RAF veteran who moved to Bristol in 1962 and was the city’s first black social worker. Stephenson found inspiration in the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and other American civil rights activists. When thinking about how he might expose the Bristol Omnibus Company’s discriminatory hiring practices on the buses, Stephenson recalled the 1955-1956 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and how it successfully inflicted economic pressure on the city and brought national attention to racial discrimination. Stephenson created a plan with one of his night school students, Guy Bailey. As the story goes, Stephenson, who could not be identified as black by his Essex accent, called the bus company in response to a posted position and explained that one of his students would like to apply. Eighteen-year old Guy Bailey met all of the job’s qualifications, but when he arrived at the office, the secretary announced to her boss that he was a black man, and Bailey was denied the interview.

Stephenson then organised a press conference and announced the bus boycott. In addition to leading the boycott, protesters picketed bus depots and key places along bus routes, and they organised blockades that prevented buses from entering the city centre. Like Dr. King’s efforts in Montgomery, the boycott and protests were non-violent, and while protesters were harrassed, none of them suffered physical harm. 9 At the outset of the boycott, the press implied that a boycott protesting racial discrimination might be necessary in Montgomery, but not in Bristol. But after hearing Ian Patey’s justification of the bus company’s hiring practices, the press largely supported Stephenson and the West Indian Development Council’s campaign to expose and eliminate the colour bar, and it put pressure on the bus company and the TGWU to end their discriminatory policies. 10 By 1st May 1963, the boycott was continuing to attract new allies, including students at Bristol University and members of Parliament, including Bristol South East MP Tony Benn, Labour leader and future Prime Minister Harold Wilson, world famous cricketer and High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago Sir Learie Constantine, and diplomats from Jamaica and the Caribbean.

While the West Indian community may have supported the goal of non-discriminatory hiring practices, most did not actively participate in the boycott or the protests that accompanied it. Many hesitated because of the fear of being attacked, losing their jobs if spotted protesting on television, and a reliance on public transportation to get to work. Nevertheless, some did participate in the boycott and demonstrations, including what historian Madge Dresser believes may have been the first black-led march against racial discrimination in Britain on 6th May 1963. 11

The boycott captured the attention of people across the country and pressure mounted on the bus company and the union. On 28th August 1963, the same day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., Ian Patey announced an end to the Bristol Omnibus Company’s discriminatory hiring practices, stating, “There will now be complete integration without regard to race, colour, or creed. The only criterion will be the person’s suitability for the job.” Some conductors and drivers resigned rather than work alongside non-whites on the buses. Within two weeks, Raghbir Singh, an Indian-born Sikh, became the first non-white bus conductor employed in Bristol.

Because the settlement agreement is not available for review and documents from the bus company and union have been lost, destroyed, or vanished over the years, it remains unclear whether the colour bar was ended in August 1963 or merely revised to include racial quotas. 12 Two years after the boycott, less than 2.5%—4 drivers and 39 conductors—of the bus employees were non-white. 13 Two years later under the leadership of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, a supporter of the boycott, the 1965 Race Relations Act was passed, which outlawed discrimination “on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins.” 14

  • 1 Madge Dresser, Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol (Bristol, England: Bristol Broadsides (Co-op) Ltd, 1986), 9-10.
  • 2Madge Dresser, Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol (Bristol, England: Bristol Broadsides (Co-op) Ltd, 1986), 11.
  • 3Madge Dresser, Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol (Bristol, England: Bristol Broadsides (Co-op) Ltd, 1986), 40.
  • 4Madge Dresser, Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol (Bristol, England: Bristol Broadsides (Co-op) Ltd, 1986), 13.
  • 5Madge Dresser, Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol (Bristol, England: Bristol Broadsides (Co-op) Ltd, 1986), 12.
  • 6Madge Dresser, “Culture wars? Bristol's colour bar dispute of 1963,” BBC Legacies, accessed April 2, 2018.
  • 7John Kelly, “What Was Behind the Bristol Bus Boycott?,” BBC News Magazine, August 27, 2013.
  • 8Madge Dresser, “Culture wars? Bristol's colour bar dispute of 1963,” BBC Legacies, accessed April 2, 2018.
  • 9John Kelly, “What Was Behind the Bristol Bus Boycott?,” BBC News Magazine, August 27, 2013.
  • 10Madge Dresser, Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol (Bristol, England: Bristol Broadsides (Co-op) Ltd, 1986),19-21.
  • 11Madge Dresser, Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol (Bristol, England: Bristol Broadsides (Co-op) Ltd, 1986), 30-32.
  • 12Madge Dresser, Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol (Bristol, England: Bristol Broadsides (Co-op) Ltd, 1986), 7.
  • 13Madge Dresser, Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol (Bristol, England: Bristol Broadsides (Co-op) Ltd, 1986), 48.
  • 14 “The great British civil rights scandal: the Bristol bus boycott,” History Extra, August 5, 2013.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this text set, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

This lesson has two videos that provide historical context for the Bristol Bus Boycott. Both videos include interesting primary source footage from the boycott and the US Civil Rights movement, and it is important that students can watch the film and not miss seeing the images as they are taking notes. For this reason, you will find a list of places where you might pause the longer first video so that your students can complete their viewing guides.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lessons plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson. The PowerPoints include basic media and prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

Protesting Discrimination in Bristol

Use these slides to help students examine strategies for bringing about change in our communities.

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Lesson Plans

Day 1 Activities

  • Before showing the first video about the Bristol Bus Boycott, pass around the K-W-L Chart handout and either ask your students to define boycott or provide them with a dictionary definition.
  • Have your students work individually or with a partner to record what they think they know about the Bristol Bus Boycott in the left-hand column. As volunteers share their ideas with the class, you might correct misconceptions about the boycott that are not addressed in the lesson’s two videos. Then have students complete the middle column by recording what they want to learn about the Bristol Bus Boycott in today’s lesson.
  • After hearing your students’ ideas, tell them that they will be watching two videos about the Bristol Bus Boycott, after which they will revisit their K-W-L Charts to record what they learned.
  • Distribute the handout What Was Behind the Bristol Bus Boycott? Viewing Guide and then play the video What Was Behind the Bristol Bus Boycott? (10:11). You might pause the video at one or more of the following places so students can record notes on their viewing guides: 01:55 (after the opening historical context) 03:07 (after Roy Hackett’s interview) 03:55 (after Paul Stephenson’s interview) 04:28 (after Guy Bailey’s interview) 06:16 (after the remaining historical context) 08:37 (after Nicholas Cummings and Lawrence Faircloth discuss the lasting impact of the boycott on their work today).
  • Ask students to share their viewing guides with a partner, adding any information that they didn’t record. You might have them share with two or three different students as long as they continue to gather new information.
  • Explain to students that they will now watch a short video that will review some information about the boycott as well as provide additional voices and insights from individuals opposed to the boycott and the boycott’s leaders.
  • Show the video Bristol Bus Boycott 50 Years On (03:08) and then divide students into groups to record information from both videos in the right-hand column of their K-W-L charts.

In a wraparound, have each student share something that they learned from their K-W-L charts. Keep circling the class until they have no new information to add. Tell students that in the next lesson they will be examining the strategies that Stephenson and others used to raise awareness about the colour bar and demand change.

Day 2  Activities

  • Tell students that in 2016, US President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In his speech, he talked about his vision of civic participation and the duties of citizenship saying,

. . . You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. I'll repeat that. I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes. . . . 1

  • Project Obama’s quotation and ask students to reflect on the following question in a journal response:

If you think about your school or local community, what do you have a passion to change that would make it a better, more humane place? What strategies might you use to create change? What might be difficult about the change process?

  • Explain to students that they are going to think about what it takes to get involved in making their schools, communities, countries and beyond better, more humane places. Explain that one of the biggest barriers that individuals face in getting involved is that it is hard to know what actual steps to take. As American legal scholar Martha Minow states: “Often times we see something that's unjust and we wonder, ‘Where do I go? What do I do?’”
  • Now explain to students that they will look at a framework for planning what to do in order to respond to injustice and make positive changes in society.
  • Distribute the handout Analysing the Levers of Power: The Bristol Bus Boycott. Spend a moment exploring the metaphor of the lever in the title. Ask students to define the meaning of the term lever and draw a picture of one on the board. Next ask students to make a suggestion about what the phrase “Levers of Power” might mean. Tell students that in a literal sense, a lever is a tool that allows one to pick up or move something much heavier than could be lifted without it. In other words, a lever allows someone to use a small amount of force to have a big impact.
  • Briefly walk students through each category on the second side of the handout, which outlines the individuals, organisations, and technology platforms that can have this sort of amplifying effect on a societal level. By influencing or making use of these “levers,” individuals might have a larger impact on their community or society.
  • Ask students to come up with examples of individuals or groups that belong to each category in order to make sure that everyone understands them.
  • Divide the class into groups of 3–4 and explain that they will now discuss how Stephenson, Hackett, and the other leaders of the Bristol Bus Boycott leveraged power to achieve their goal of exposing the colour bar and ending the discriminatory hiring practices on Bristol’s buses.
  • Instruct students to discuss and answer the first four questions and then in each row on the back of the handout, write a sentence explaining how the leaders used the lever described in the heading. If such a lever was not used, students can write “N/A” in the row. If a “lever of power” was involved that is not listed on the handout, students should describe it at the bottom of the page.
  • Finally, lead a whole-group discussion in which you ask students to share their observations. Guide the discussion with the following questions:
    • Which of the strategies for change seemed most effective? Which seemed most difficult?
    • If Stephenson and the other leaders of the boycott were to plan their boycott to address discriminatory hiring practices today, what “levers of power” might they try to influence and how? What challenges might they face?
    • Which of the “levers of power” on the handout seem most accessible to you? Which seem most difficult to influence? Which are you struggling to understand?

Ask students to reread their journal responses from the start of the lesson and then respond to the following question:

How might you use one or more of the “levers of power” to bring about the change that you would like to see in your school or local community? How might this strategy help you achieve your goals for change? 1

  • 1White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by the President at Howard University Commencement Ceremony,” speech delivered by Barack Obama at Howard University, Washington, DC, May 7, 2016.

Extension Activity

Ask students to analyse the potential benefits and pitfalls of using the Internet for civic participation. Pass out the reading Online Civic Participation and ask students to read through Danielle Allen’s ten questions. Then lead a discussion using the following questions:

  • What examples do you know about of people using the internet in their attempts to bring about change? How might they have answered Allen’s questions?
  • What do Allen’s questions suggest about the potential opportunities and difficulties in using the internet to make positive change? Do you think these questions would be helpful even if one’s plan of action does not involve the internet?

Materials and Downloads

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The resources below provide additional guidance for addressing difficult topics in the classroom.

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