What must individuals do and value in order to bring about a more humane, just, and compassionate society?
What can the Battle of Cable Street teach us about the importance of individuals and groups working in solidarity against discrimination, racism, and antisemitism?
A few years after the signing of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt gave a speech at the United Nations which she called “Where Do Human Rights Begin?” In her view, human rights began,
In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.1
The final lessons of this scheme of work explore the theme of “Choosing to Participate,” inviting students to envision the ways that they might contribute to the process of creating a more humane, fair, and compassionate environment “in small places, close to home,” such as their schools and local communities. To achieve this end, in the next three lessons, students will learn how different groups of people came together in solidarity to confront injustices in their communities during the 1936 Battle of Cable Street and the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott and examine the strategies that individuals and groups used to take action and demand change in the face of antisemitism and racial discrimination.
In this two-period lesson, students will study the Battle of Cable Street in London, where Jews, Irish labourers and dockworkers, Communists, and members of the Labour Party came together to protest against Fascist leader Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts when they attempted to march through London’s East End on 4th October 1936. First, students will preview images from this historic event and use them to make predictions about what may have happened. Then they will listen to a BBC Witness audio account in which social historian Bill Fishman recalls his experience sneaking out of his house as a teenager to join the hundreds of thousands of protesters who crowded Whitechapel, Shoreditch, and the surrounding areas to protest Mosley’s march. In the second period of this lesson, students will deepen their understanding of the Battle of Cable Street by reading an article commemorating the event’s 80th anniversary in 2016. They will then consider their own responsibility to take action when they encounter racism, antisemitism, and prejudice in their communities today.
In October 2016, London commemorated the 80th anniversary of the historic Battle of Cable Street where up to 200,000 men, women, and children gathered to protest a march through East London led by Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (BUF). A former member of Parliament known for his public speaking skills, Mosley founded the BUF in 1932, and within two years membership had grown to 50,000. In the years leading up to the Battle of Cable Street, the BUF had developed a reputation for its attacks on Jews and Communists, going so far as to describe Jews as “rats and vermin from the gutter of Whitechapel.”2 Posters announcing the 4th October event were distributed in September, and political leaders in the East End petitioned Home Secretary Sir John Simon to ban the march; however, their request was denied. On 2nd October, the Jewish People’s Council presented a second petition with 100,000 signatures to request that the march be banned on the grounds that the “avowed object of the Fascist movement in Great Britain is the incitement of malice and hatred against sections of the population.”3 Despite these efforts, the British government allowed the march to proceed as planned and assigned 7,000 members of the police force to accompany it.
In the streets of the East End, Jewish residents (many of whom had fled Tsarist pogroms), Irish dock workers and labourers (many of whom had left famine and poverty in their own country), along with Communists and Labour Party members gathered to demonstrate against Mosley and his Blackshirts. Together, they barricaded streets and blocked the intersection of Whitechapel High Street, which forced the march to reroute via Cable Street where the demonstrators had overturned a brick truck and created barricades, once again blocking the route. In the spirit of Spain’s anti-fascist movement, protesters yelled “No Pasarán! They Shall Not Pass!” The streets became violent as police charged the crowd to clear a path for the marchers, while children were instructed to throw their marbles under the hooves of the police officers’ horses, causing them to stumble and fall. Women emptied chamber pots and debris from above and protested alongside the men in the streets, and demonstrators threw rotten fruit and stones. Records suggest that most of the confrontations occurred between the police and the demonstrators, and not the marchers, with only six Fascists arrested out of a total of the 85, which included some women and juveniles.4 In the end, anti-fascist demonstrators celebrated as Mosley and the BUF members were forced to turn back.
Some historians today warn against mythologising the Battle of Cable Street. Daniel Tilles, assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow and author of British Fascist Antisemitism and Jewish Responses, 1932-40, explains that while the anti-fascist demonstrators prevented Mosley and the BUF from completing their march, in the wake of the event, interest in the BUF and instances antisemitism actually increased. According to Tilles, “The scenes at Cable Street, widely reported in the press and newsreels, fit perfectly into the narrative the BUF aimed to create—of a Jewish, communist-inspired mob violently denying British patriots the right to march through their own streets.”5 By late October 1936, membership in the BUF had increased by 2,000, with many joining East End branches of the organisation.6 In March 1937, Tilles notes that the BUF received 18% of the East End vote, and around 30% of the non-Jewish vote, in the three main areas of the Cable Street confrontation between demonstrators, police, and Fascists.7
A large mural, with its own tumultuous history that students will learn about in the next lesson, commemorates the Battle of Cable Street and was the scene of a march and rally on 9th October 2016 when participants carried signs reading “1936–2016 Fascists Still Do Not Pass” and “No to Antisemitism, No to Islamophobia, No to All Racism.” London’s East End has undergone a demographic shift since 1936, and now members of its Bengali and South-East Asian communities face similar racist threats and hate crimes, while Britain and Europe experiences a rise in anti-immigration sentiment. There is much to learn from the Battle of Cable Street about the power that individuals and groups wield in the face of intolerant policies and behaviours when they unite against racism and discrimination. Hopefully by engaging with this history, students will think critically about the choices made by the East End community and its allies in 1936 and then consider choices available to them as agents of change in the face of prejudice and discrimination in their schools and communities today.