Leonard “Len” Benker Johnson was born on the 22nd of October 1902. He grew up in working class Clayton as the son of William Benker “Bill” Johnson, a Sierra Leonean merchant seaman, and Margaret Maher, his proudly Irish Mancunian Mother. He grew up in a multi-cultural childhood with fellow immigrants of Jewish, Irish, Italian, and Yemeni background. He was just another kid on the block.
However, even in a diverse neighbourhood his mixed race family was not welcome. His mother, Margaret, was the target of a malicious attack leaving her with lifelong scars. All because she married a Black man. This was only one of many prejudices that Len was to face in his life.
When he was 19, Len got into a scuffle with another young worker before being separated by their fathers. Recognising some talent, his father Bill (who was a boxer in his time) decided to take action and arranged some fights. As a complete amateur in his first bout, Len won two and lost two. With a bit of coaching a honing, it was evident he could be a legend in the making.
Len drew national attention in 1926 when he defeated Roland Todd, a former European and British Champion in the packed crowds at Belle Vue. Over his 11 year career he won 92 of his 127 professional fights, which included several other British and European champions of the time. At his peak, he travelled to Australia to win the title of British Empire Middleweight Champion. Len came back to Britain with hopes of a winner’s homecoming. However, he was denied an opportunity to claim the official title as the British Champion.
Because he was Black.
In the turn of the 20th century, the British establishment was on edge. They were anxious of the negative implications on the Empire and its emboldening colonial subjects if a black boxer could beat a white one. This could crumble their claim of white supremacy through scientific racism, which placed them at the top of the racial hierarchy. This led to the colour bar being put in place in 1911 by Home Secretary Winston Churchill. Black boxers were denied the opportunity to fight at the top level.
So despite beating several of the best in Britain, the British Boxing Board of Control refused to allow Len to officially compete. Promoters were happy to feature him in their boxing events because he was popular and brought in crowds, but they rarely rallied in his campaign against the colour bar. He was essentially used. Disheartened by the situation he retired from professional boxing in 1933.
He may have stopped boxing, but he did not stop fighting.
In 1930, Len befriended American singer and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson, who may have helped inspire his political voice. The world was changing, and fascism was growing across Manchester and Europe. Throughout WWII he served in the Civil Defence Rescue Squad in Manchester, to enter air raid damaged buildings to retrieve the injured and dead. By the closing of the war, Len was regarded as a community leader, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and was a delegate to the Fifth Pan-African Congress.
This congress was held in the Chorlton-on-Medlock Town Hall, several months after the end of WWII and brought together 87 anti-colonial activists. The war was fought for freedom. But this was still a world where millions of people continued to live in colonies under European powers. The Fifth Pan-African Congress held in 1945 was where major decisions were made leading to the liberation of several African countries. Manchester hosted this as it was considered one of the least prejudiced city in the UK (relatively speaking). It was a hub for Black activists and had deep roots with the community, making it easier for access to lodgings and catering. A key logistic issue as many establishments would not accommodate for Black people.
Len experienced this first hand and fought against it.
During this time, Manchester had a growing Black community in Moss Side and Hulme, in a mounting world of discrimination. Len set up the New International Club on Grafton Street with two white working class Mancunians (Syd Booth and Wilf Charles) as a political and social space for them to combat against racism. The principles:
True internationalism; colonial liberation; the ending of racial discrimination; peace.
On the 30th of September 1953, Len went to the Old Abbey Taphouse with his friends and was denied a drink. Police were called to remove him and his friends out.
Because he was Black.
Len channelled his anger and made change happen. He launched a campaign and brought in support from major powers including the Lord Mayor and Bishop of Manchester. Over the course of a few days, he and over 200 people (black and white) gathered outside the pub. The pub’s colour ruling was eventually overturned and Len was invited inside and sat down to drink with the owner.
His later years were much quieter and Len lived out as an unassuming bus and lorry driver in Oldham before dying of ill-health in September 1974.
A boxer. An activist. A legend.
He was denied his recognition then. Let’s remember him now.
It is far better to give than to receive.
– Len Johnson
Policy changes Len influenced:
- The colour bar ended in 1947, and Dick Turpin became Britain’s first Black boxing champion in 1948.
- The decolonisation of Africa largely took place in the 1950’s to 1970’s, with Ghana becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to gain its independence from European powers, led by Kwame Nkrumah (delegate of the Fifth Pan-African Congress).
- Implementation of the Race Relation Act of 1965, made racial discrimination in public places unlawful.
By Jason Chu – @jchu0
Black Lives Matter has taken to the streets across the world. We’ve had protests, statues being removed, communities being brought together. Things are happening.
However, action cannot be temporary and fleeting. It has to happen everyday. Even if only in small steps.
I’ve found it necessary to read more about the roots of systemic racism and the role of the British Empire. As a consequence, I’ve stumbled across various Mancunian icons from BAME, LGBT+, and underrepresented backgrounds who have been denied their recognition. Over the coming weeks and months I aim to produce profiles to highlight these individuals and events.
Education never stops.