Coca Clarke is an 85-year-old Black Power activist and she is still an active member of the vibrant Moss Side community, a community that – despite its many laudable efforts – struggles to shred off the lazy stereotypes and assumptions placed on an entire community by the media since the ‘gang wars’ of the ‘80s and ‘90s. In this interview, Clarke tells her story and that of her sister Kath Locke, the activist to whom the medical and community centre in Moss Side is dedicated.
By Francesca Nottola and Jez Djossou
I met Coca Clarke at an event with Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver organised by the Northern Police Monitoring Project in Moss Side on 20 June 2018. The panel and the audience were discussing Moss Side, police brutality, racism and, in general, various initiatives and proposals for an overdue change of narrative on Moss Side that places the community and its livelihood at the centre.
Coca Clarke stood up and spoke briefly about her experience as a Black Power activist in Moss Side in the 1960s and, having a strong interest in the Black Power movement, I asked her if she would be available for an interview about her experience. She kindly agreed to it, and this is the result of the conversation we held at her home in Moss Side on 10 July 2018.
Francesca Nottola Ms Clarke, would you like to tell us something about yourself and growing up in England?
Coca Clarke I’m 85. I was born in Manchester in 1933 and brought up in Blackpool. I did all my schooling in Blackpool. My father was the first black man to hold African shows in England about Africans and how they lived. He had a place on Blackpool beach.
It was kind of political all our lives, in the sense that we knew that we were black. A lot of black children in those days didn’t accept their colour, but we were brought up to be proud of being African. We had to walk straight! My dad used to do that [mimics pushing gesture with her hand] at the back, to make us walk straight with our shoulders, straight in our head. ‘Don’t let anybody touch your hair! You’re not freaks!’. So, you can imagine being brought up in that kind of background, of course you are going to be conscious of what is going on around you.
Before the 1950s, they tolerated us, we were something to look at: ‘Oh, you’ve got lovely hair! And lovely curls!’. There’s no curl in our hair, it’s all kink! They’d touch you, they’d take a good look. My father used to go mad! ‘If I find out you let anybody touch your hair, you are going to be in trouble!’ He would not let us be ridiculed. I’d be out with my mum when I was a little girl and they’d say: ‘Oh, look at them piccaninnies!’.
My father started pointing out different things to us, because we ourselves were brought up with English schooling and we ourselves were racist, in some ways. One day I’d come home from school and say: ‘Oh, the West Indians wear grass skirts!’. And my dad would say: ‘No, they don’t! Where did you get that from?’. ‘From school! They wear grass skirts and long flowing hair.’ He said: ‘No they don’t! West Indians are like you!’. We didn’t know, because we were brought up in an English society. We knew we were different, but we didn’t know that that was racist. I remember being young and having a fight with this girl and saying to my mum: ‘These white people get on my nerves!’. So, she made me sit down and go through it with her, and when she went through it with me I said ‘No, I can’t do that again ‘cause it’s as racist as what the whites say to me!’.
Then I taught that to my children. My kids have never been allowed to say anything bad about others. One time I took one of my daughters to London. There was this Chinese family upstairs, and she just turned to me and said: ‘…Them chinks upstairs!’ I said: ‘What? What did you just say?’. So, I went upstairs, there were two boys and I said: ‘Will you come down and have a meal with us? They said: ‘Yes, thank you!’. So, I cooked, they had a meal with us. Then, when they went back up, I asked my daughter: ‘Where did you get that word from?’ She said: ‘I heard it in school.’ I said: ‘The way you call them, other people call you. Don’t you ever call the Chinese that way again!’. This is about education. No babies are born racist, nor black or white, it’s what parents say and what they hear in the house or in school. It’s just the same with black kids. Some black kids can be nasty to white people, and I go mad with them.
Then, in 1949, we moved to Manchester, because my dad wanted to be around his own people, and I left school not been able to read or write. I couldn’t read anything, and I couldn’t write anything, I couldn’t spell anything at all. Everything I know to this day is self-taught. Schooling didn’t teach me anything, because I was dyslexic.
FN Which country in Africa was your father from?
CC Nigeria. Cross River, the old Calabar, it used to be the centre of Nigeria once. My father did go back to Africa, eventually. He talked a lot to us about Africa when we were growing up. I’ve been to Africa, but I’ve never been to Calabar.
We’ve always had to fight, we had to battle in school, because we were the only black family in Blackpool at the time. In those days they said ‘coloured’. I’ve always had to fight from being grown up being called the n-word, and one time – I was 13 – I had to fight a big woman because she said: ‘Go down the other end of the street, where you mother is married to a n- man!’
In 1934, my mother, who was an English white woman, got a house in Blackpool. The neighbours changed a lot when they found out she was married to a black man. She was a teacher in a college, and they took the job away from her because she had married a black man. My mother went through hell to bring us up. Those women, in those days, went through hell to bring us up, I admired them.
FN Was racism worse then or now, with the internet?
CC It’s getting worse. You can blame the government for that, they have done it. They are happy about it. As long as they’ve got us divided, they are happy.
Britain was supposed to be this country that didn’t have racism. They talked about America and how bad racism was in America. Ours has always been covert racism, underneath racism, also in the education system. My sister passed three exams and, because the school assumed my mother and father couldn’t afford to buy a uniform for the college that she wanted to go, she never went.
FN You were born here, so you are English and British. What does this mean to you?
CC There is still a law saying that they can deport me because I’ve got an African father. I’ve fostered for 31 years. You have to go to meetings to do it, and one was on immigration. The clerk said to me: ‘Do you know that they can deport you?’. I said: ‘Don’t talk stupid, I was born here!’. Then she brought the paper and showed it to me. I could not believe it. They could still deport me if they wanted to, because I’ve got an African father. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did this to me under Theresa May. We think: ‘They can’t do that here!’, but they can. There’s so much covert racism going on within the government. That’s the worst type of racism. They can call America what they like, but we’ve done just as bad.
FN What happened then after you moved to Manchester?
CC Then I got married and had my kids. I had my first child when I was 19, in 1952. Then I had four more, then I had Janie. I am a mother of 7 daughters, and I made them strong and conscious of being black. I used to get my kids going leafleting too. My youngest daughter, her father was Trinidadian, he had whites in his family, so she came out light-skinned. With her being the lightest of all the family, she used to get: ‘But you’re not black!’ and she’d reply: ‘I am black, but I am fair-skinned!’, because I said that to her. ‘You are black, you’re like your sisters, but you are fair-skinned’. Do you know the Kath Locke Centre in Moss Side? They named the building after my sister, she was very political and into organisation.
FN Please tell us more about that. How did you get involved with Black Power groups?
CC In the late ‘60s, around 1968, this man, Ron Phillips, came to Moss Side. He was going around talking to people. We started talking and we got interested. He did make us more aware of the politics in Black Power and how they worked together trying to better the communities wherever they were.
The Black Power group had one of its headquarters at the Roundhouse in London. It was Ron Phillips, Josh Joseph, Sonia Joseph, Cheung Baker, they all came down from London. We’d have the house full and about 20 people sleeping on the floor, just coming down for meetings, because I had the biggest house at that time.
Then, you know when in an organisation men think they should be at the top? This is how the Abasindi group came about. We stood up against them. We took over St Mary’s School and formed the Abasindi group. I was one of the main ones. We did leafleting and took over St Mary’s School and we stayed in there for 10 days and 10 nights. The men couldn’t come, just the women. We occupied because we had no play centres for black kids, we had nothing for black kids. Even with fostering, they’d foster kids out to white families in areas where there were no black people, so the kids were not getting their identity. These are the things that we picked up on, and we got books to read: Fanon, Baldwin and stuff like that. We read books.
We opened the nursery in St Mary’s, as a play school for kids where mothers could just come and leave the kids while they did their shopping, you know, things like that. We had it open for about six months before they could get us out. We charged the mothers about two shillings a day, but we provided all the food. So, we used to go around the university and in town with boxes. We raised the funding for that. We went out begging on the streets with boxes, you know, told people what we were: Black Power. Some people agreed with us, some people didn’t.
We taught typing, we taught kids to read and write, we did sewing and craft work, dancing, poetry, everything. That, in the end, dwindled away because people, younger people, would not come in because everybody, you know, put this label ‘Black Power’ on us, and it dwindled down a bit. But my sister was very, very active. She got the funding for St Mary’s and they worked with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau [to give legal advice] for [issues with] the police when they had the riots in Manchester. We opened St Mary’s to anybody who got injured. We’d do our best for them or get them to hospital. We tried to help the community as much as we could, but the police were on us.
There were a few of us: Elouise Edwards, Yvonne Hypolite, Shirley [Inniss]. It was a quite a few. Moss Side is a big area, but where the black people were it wasn’t a big area, and there were about 20 of us. The women put a lot of work in it, a lot of work.
Then we got the George Jackson House, on Withington Road. We did fundraising, we went out begging, we got funding for that too. We used to go and find teenagers on the streets, living on the streets, and bring them home. It was a five-bedroom house, we used to put the girls on one side and the boys on the other side, maybe two or three girls in one room because it had high ceilings, you know those big old houses. We had the bathrooms done.
We held meetings and we helped to set up the first Carnival in the ‘60s with the Trinidadian people. We weren’t the leaders of it because the Trinidadians were, but we helped, and we did a Black Power event in it. We used it as a platform for us.
At the end of the ‘60s, we did a march on the Cathedral. We took it over, with our black berets and everything, with about 15 others. We did not let any of the younger kids come, it was just from 16 upwards. They arrested a boy. He was 16, and they bashed him that bad in the police station that he had to have a plate in his head. He used to live here in Withington for a while. He was never right afterwards. It got very serious.
FN What was the feedback from the community about your work?
CC A lot of young girls, we really made them conscious about their education, about going to college. Even now I see the girls, they go ‘Hi Coca, Auntie Coca, Mama Coca’, whatever they want to call me, and some of them, I don’t even recognise them! ‘Don’t you remember me from Abasindi when I was little and I used to come in?’.
The reason why Black Power – and I still go back to this – was so popular in the US was that the Americans had been slaves, so all that hatred had built up for generations because, let’s face it, we pass everything that happens to us down to our children. So, from generation to generation, they had something really to hold on to. We weren’t slaves, we didn’t have anything to hold on to. The press gave us a bad name, and it did take a lot of people away from us, they isolated us. And people had to think about their jobs, because they’d lose their job if they were involved. We had to be careful. They were stronger in America because it is bigger, and they had the slavery issue, we didn’t have that. They used to tell us that we were getting a better life in this country, why should we go on about it like that?
FN They wanted you to be grateful!
CC That’s it. It’s like what they are doing to the Eastern Europeans now. We should be grateful to be here! ‘At least you get the dole here. If you get in work you get a decent wage here!’. They make you feel like you are obligated to them.
FN How did you hear about the Black Panthers?
CC It was in the news. I also met Huey Newton when he sneaked into England in the ‘70s. I met him at my sister’s house in Moss Side. I met Bobby Seale too, and I admired them. They were the most inspirational thing I had ever seen. We took more notice of what was going on with the blacks in America. And, to me, the most inspiring thing I ever saw in my life was when the two black athletes stood up and did the salute at the Olympic Games. It was the most inspiring thing I had ever seen in my life, to go against the flag and the country and all the people… I know the white guy helped them, but to stand up and do that Black Power salute was absolutely marvellous.
Black Power gave me an incentive to bring my children up political, all my children are. They think, they don’t just go along with their eyes wide open and the mind shut. They know, because I used to take them to meetings with me and I made them get involved in what was going on.
FN One thing I really like about the Black Panthers is that they refused to be humiliated.
CC I know. I had once a social worker that put me down and said that I was arrogant. I said ‘No, I’m assertive. And that’s what you don’t like. Because when I want to talk, you hear me. I don’t pull back. That’s what you don’t like.’
FN They also don’t like it because you are a woman, and an assertive woman is considered ‘bossy’. You are always expected to smile.
CC I mean, I know when to go ‘yes sir, no sir’. If I want something and I know it’s gonna benefit me, I’m gonna be nice. But when I got it, then you are going to see the real me. In jobs, in anything. You’ve got to kiss arses before you can kick arses!
That’s what they’ve done to us all our lives. They’ve been ‘nice’ to us and they stole all our properties. They did it in Moss Side. 70% of the people in those days when they did the compulsory purchase in the ‘70s, they owned the houses. They gave me for a four-bedroom house, one dining room and a sitting room, kitchen and back kitchen £120. They robbed us of those houses. We had always lived in Moss Side. They didn’t do it to anybody else in Manchester. The first phase of that was in Moss Side. First, they built Hulme, then they built the Alexandra Park estate. That’s where the gang war started. There was no gang war before in the old Moss Side, because the parents knew each other, and we could control the kids. It was when they built that estate. I’ve sat at the back of buses and I heard: ‘Let them kill each other!’
FN When you were an activist in the ‘60s and ‘70s, did you work with other civil rights groups or students?
CC We believed – this was Black Power theory – that the whites have to fight for their poor people and we had to fight for our people. You are a white person. You will see the fire, but you won’t feel the fire. We feel the fire. You can smell racism off people. You get in the bus, you can tell whether they want to see next to you or not, or if they are sat there, and you sit down, and you can feel it off them. And it’s going more prevalent now.
Now, I cannot say how … well in fact I can say how a poor white man lives, because my dad sometimes was out of work when we were kids. Even if we’ve experienced the same difficulties, they have not had the problem that we have. A Jewish woman once said to me that they also are at risk. And I said: you know, we cannot go out there and pretend that we are white, we just can’t. We can’t pass for white. Even the ones that think they can, they can’t pass for white. In the end, somebody is always going to find out. But as a Jewish person, you can pass as a non-Jew or Christian, but we can’t do that. You can’t say you are feeling the same fire as me. Of course, I am sorry for discrimination against Jews, and the Holocaust was a tragedy, but think of all the ships that went down with black people and how slavery was.
FN What is your experience with the police?
CC In 1960, my daughter was six weeks old, I was still feeding her, and it was my sister’s birthday or my birthday. It was January, and my mum said: ‘You can go out with Kathleen’ – my sister – ‘and her husband’. We were walking down Darcy Street (that’s an old part of Moss Side), and these Irish people came up and said: ‘Oh, there’s another big n-word puncher!’. So, I said: ‘How do I know you are not a Nazi?’. A policeman came, said nothing to them and arrested me. They took me to the police station and put me in this room. My sister comes up, they say: ‘Go in that room’. ‘Why?’ she asked, ‘Is she in there?’. ‘Yeah’. So, she comes in. ‘What are they doing to you?’ I said: ‘I don’t know!’ Then her husband came looking for us. ‘Go in that room.’ They arrested us, the three of us! They were not even involved in this argument, it was me that stood up against them. Then they said: ‘You go to court on Monday morning, drunken disorderly conduct and obscene language’. I said: ‘I want a solicitor’. So, I spoke with my dad’s solicitor and he said: ‘Right, if you want to go to court, go to court, but you could just pay the £2 fine…’ and I said ‘No, I’m principled! I’m not going to pay the £2 fine!’ We went to court, magistrate’s court, and she said to me: ‘Well you put it down to people’s ignorance.’ And I got so mad at her! I said: ‘Excuse me, do you like being called a bastard?’ And she bound me over for 12 months. That was 1960.
My sister could have been a magistrate, but she didn’t do it because she said: ‘I’m not sitting on a bench to put my black boys down, or black young girls down, when the society is driving them into it in the first place.’
FN So bias against black people exists not just within the police, but also in the judicial system.
CC It’s the whole system, it’s a fact. When my children were kids, coppers weren’t as bad as they are today. I don’t blame some of the young black people for getting in trouble, because I’ve been there myself. I don’t blame them, because when you go out there and you get frustrated, you know that you are not going to win, whatever you do. So sometimes you say: ‘I don’t give a damn! I’m gonna fight’, or ‘I’m gonna do this.’
FN What does ‘Troubled Waters’ refer to?
CC It’s about being black and how he had to join the gangs in London, otherwise he wasn’t going to survive. Because he stopped going to sea, he couldn’t get a job. There were no sure jobs in those days for black men. 90% of black men in the ‘30s, ‘40s and early ‘50s went to sea. There were very few West Indians here then, so it was mostly Africans. There was no black person who ever went to university that was born here. There were some people who went to university if they came from very, very rich families, but not the working class. No black person from here went to Manchester University until the ‘60s.
FN In your view, which is the best way to defeat racism? Is mixing communities the best way to integration? In which way can the Council create a more welcoming and safer environment for everybody?
CC Segregation is not going to work. This is a multiracial country now, so let’s face it: we have to live together. We’ve always lived decently in the old Moss Side. We used to have parties and stuff and people didn’t complain because they knew it was our culture to do that. Nowadays, you can’t have a party because you hear banging on your door. We like to play our music, what’s wrong with that? In America I go to the South, and on the Sunday, you take your kids to the park and you have a barbecue. They don’t allow us to do that in Moss Side.
FN Should the Council have a role in this via its housing and planning policy?
CC They used to! They used to own all the houses and now they sell them off at private concerns. They used to own the schools, they sold them off to private companies. It’s all about money. We are getting more Americanised every day. Yellow school buses: we never had them before. These little things you don’t notice at the time until you start realising that that’s American!
FN Do you think political parties make a difference in this context?
CC One’s a tiger and one’s a paper tiger, come on! I vote Labour, I’ve always voted Labour. But they are not very much different. But what can you do, we’ve got no choice and if we don’t then we definitely put the Conservatives in. Without the Labour party and the NHS, I’d be a cripple. They were going to amputate my leg. But, because of the NHS, we got this German doctor, his name was Schultz. Funnily enough, the first time I got married my name was also Schultz. He saved my life.
FN Do you think Black Power is still a useful concept today and can it be used to organise young black people?
CC Yes. The fight against racism, I would say, it should be pure black, because they understand one another. I’ve been in committee rooms where there’s been whites and they would say: ‘But you can’t do that!’. ‘What do you mean I can’t do it?’. ‘People will say you are racist!’. ‘Well, I’m racist then, because I’m doing it!’ Even now, let’s face the fact, I get pulled up sometimes about it in conversations with people. It’s not politically correct to make some statements. But that’s how I feel. I’m not calling any race. I’m telling you how we feel and what we need. They always get us because we are in the white man’s country. I’ve been to Africa, Ghana. The first time I went it was a cultural shock. I felt so relieved. It was marvellous, it was inspiring, and I just loved it. It’s so nice, because you go in shops, banks and you see many black people in business, lawyers, doctors. We’ve got no power at all in Britain. Only if you are a singer, then you might get at the very top, if they don’t pull you back. We battle on the best we can, I don’t see any end to it. And I don’t think that we will ever be united, white and black.
FN So you say it’s better to work separately and collaborate?
CC Yes, collaborate when possible. Get to power, then get your standing.
FN I mean, it’s not hard to understand, historically, the anger of many black people. I’d be furious.
CC I can understand them saying that the white establishment is racist and get mad at it, but not individuals, because we wouldn’t be sat in this room otherwise.
FN But it’s a reaction, isn’t it?
CC Oh yeah, I’ve been there, worn the t-shirt. I fought a lot of white girls when I was young.
FN When black activists say they are tired of trying to work with white people, I understand why they say it.
CC We have to work together in some ways because we are living in a white society, regardless of whether we like it or not. We have to, because we don’t have that economic power in Britain like they have in America where Black entrepreneurs can employ people. If we had that power, we might do differently. And when the lot of black people get to that position, often they forget the people down here.
FN Are you thinking of Obama? Some people say that about him. What do you think of him?
CC I think he did well for what was put on his plate. He showed dignity and he showed the world that a family can live together without scandal. How many presidents have done that? He did what he could. He kissed arses to kick arses, as I say. I don’t mean bowing down giving them all their own way, but sometimes you’ve got to show them that same face that they show us, be nice, and as soon as you get your position, then you let them know. I’ll never condemn him. A lot of people say he didn’t do anything, but he did something, he tried. He wasn’t a warmonger like this one they got now.
FN There aren’t many black people in power here, are there?
CC Ron Phillips’s brother is Trevor Phillips. He was in Black Power, but he had to leave because he wanted to pursue journalism, that was his ambition. There are not many Black Power people left in London. In America, black people live closer, they are knitted together.
I’ve got an example from work. I used to work at Kellogg’s, I had worked there for three years, and I wanted to know why black women weren’t employed in Quality Assurance, where they would get more money. Their excuse to turn them down was something to do with timekeeping. So, I said to one of my friends: ‘Will you please, for six months, not be late for work and not take time off? I’ll support you in every way I can.’ And she did. She went for the job and they turned her down. They made some excuse and turned her down. So, I went to the shop steward and I said: ‘I want to know why’. So, I asked for a meeting with the head of Quality Assurance, the head of the department that I worked in, and another of the top bosses. I said: ‘I can’t take Kellogg’s to court, but I can take you as a manager of the department. Why no black women?’ Four weeks later, she got the job.
Another time, at a meeting, Kellogg’s showed to all the union people the advertising they were going to put on for the next season. So, they put these Pygmies on, with rings. I’m the only black person in the hall. I said: ‘STOP THE FILMING!’ I turned to the American man and told him: ‘Would you take that home to show your kids?’. And he looked at me and he said: ‘No, because you couldn’t do that in America.’ I said: I’m not having that in my house.’ ‘Oh, you got a chip on your shoulder!’ and I said ‘Yes! I’ve had it from the day I was born in this white country!’.
Without my supervisor I would have been sacked a lot earlier, but she liked my bluntness. So, when she retired, I took my redundancy, because I knew the other lady coming up did not like me.
Now, this is a thing that we have to teach our kids: don’t just sit back and take it. You’ve got to step forward and show them that you are not stupid. This is where education comes in for the young people, and it starts at home. You’ve got to make leaflets to get into black families’ homes. White people are not going to educate us. The black parent has to educate the children, you need to start from the cradle.
As an organisation, if you get the leaflets out to black families to educate their children first, then children can educate each other outside. Even as a child, I used to educate other kids about Africa when our dad taught us. I’d go back and tell them stories my dad had told me, that there’s not lions and snakes all over the place and not everybody lives in mud huts, you know.
FN Although if you watch tv, even in 2018, that’s exactly what they want you to believe, that there’s only starving children in Africa.
CC Yeah, they do it with central America too, don’t they? They are going on about it as if there’s still cannibals. They still do it. I was watching something on telly, some guy was doing an interview somewhere and commenting that those people knew no better. And I was thinking: ‘Look at the way they live, they are so happy! They haven’t got anything that we have, no material values, and they are still happy. They are all smiling, and we walk around with miserable faces.’