John La Rose, intellectual, trades unionist, campaigner, poet, born December 27 1927; died February 28 2006

John La Rose

Linton Kwesi Johnson
Saturday March 4, 2006
The Guardian

John La Rose, who has died aged 78, was the elder
statesman of Britain's black communities. Like Marcus
Garvey, CLR James, George Padmore, Fidel Castro and
Frantz Fanon, John belongs to a Caribbean tradition of
radical and revolutionary activism whose input has
reverberated across continents. The depth and breadth
of his contribution to the struggle for cultural and
social change, for racial equality and social justice,
for the humanisation of society, is unparalleled in
the history of the black experience in Britain. He was
a man of great erudition whose generosity of spirit
and clarity of vision and sincerity inspired people
like me. John was not only my mentor, friend, comrade,
he was like a father to me. He was the most remarkable
human being I have ever known.

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A poet, essayist, publisher, filmmaker, trade
unionist, cultural and political activist, John was
born in Arima, Trinidad, where his father was a cocoa
trader and his mother a teacher. At nine he won a
scholarship to St Mary's College, Port of Spain, where
he later taught before becoming an insurance
executive. He later also taught in Venezuela. Culture,
politics and trade unionism were central to his vision
of change. He was an executive member of the Youth
Council in Trinidad and produced their fortnightly
radio programme, Noise of Youth, for Radio Trinidad.
In the mid-1950s, he co-authored, with the calypsonian
Raymond Quevedo (Atilla the Hun), a pioneering study
of calypso entitled Kaiso: A Review (republished in
1983 as Atilla's Kaiso).
One of John's favourite sayings was "We didn't come
alive in Britain," an allusion to the struggles that
had been waged by Caribbean peoples in the Caribbean
against colonialism and for workers' and people's
power. In the 1940s in Trinidad, he helped to found
the Workers Freedom Movement and edited its journal,
Freedom. He was an executive member of the Federated
Workers Trade Union, later merged into the National
Union of Government and Federated Workers. He became
the general secretary of the West Indian Independence
Party and contested a seat in the 1956 Trinidad
general election after being banned from other West
Indian islands by the British colonial authorities. He
was also involved in the internal struggle of the
Oilfield Workers Trade Union, siding with the "rebel"
faction that wanted a more radical and democratic
union. The rebels prevailed in the 1962 union election
and John became their European representative, a
position he held until his death.

Soon after he arrived in Britain in 1961, he was again
engaged in activism. In 1966 he founded New Beacon
Books, the first Caribbean publishing house, bookshop
and international book service in Britain. In that
same year, together with the Jamaican writer and
broadcaster Andrew Salkey and the Barbadian poet and
historian Kamau Brathwaite, he co-founded the
Caribbean Artists Movement. In 1972-73, he was
chairman of the Institute of Race Relations and
Towards Racial Justice, which published the radical
campaigning journal Race Today, edited by Darcus Howe.

John was also involved in the Black Education Movement
in the 1960s, particularly in the struggle against
banding, and the placing of West Indian children in
schools for the educationally sub-normal. He founded
the George Padmore Supplementary School for West
Indian children in 1969 and was one of the founders of
the Caribbean Education in Community Workers
Association. That organisation published Bernard
Coard's groundbreaking How the West Indian Child Is
Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School
System (1971). He was also instrumental in the
founding of the National Association of Supplementary
Schools in the 1980s and was its chairman for a couple
of years.

In 1975, after a black schoolboy was assaulted outside
his school by police in the London borough of
Haringey, John, together with concerned parents,
founded the Black Parents Movement to combat the
brutalisation and criminalisation of young blacks, and
to agitate for youth and parent power and decent
education. By then the Race Today journal had severed
links with the Institute of Race Relations and was now
the journal of the Race Today Collective. The Black
Parents Movement allied with them and with the Black
Youth Movement.

This alliance became the most powerful cultural and
political movement organised by blacks in Britain,
winning many campaigns for justice against police
oppression, agitating for better state education and
supporting black working class struggle. It was the
alliance which formed the New Cross Massacre Action
Committee in response to an arson attack which
resulted in the deaths of 13 young blacks in 1981, and
mobilised 20,000 people in protest. John was the
chairman of the action committee and gave tremendous
support to the bereaved families.

In 1982, John was instrumental in the founding of
Africa Solidarity, in support of those struggling
against dictatorial governments in Africa. That year
he also became chairman of the Committee for the
Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya, whose
founding members included the Kenyan novelist and
critic Ngugi wa Thiong'o. In response to the rise in
fascism and xenophobia, John helped to found European
Action for Racial Equality and Social Justice,
bringing together anti-racists and anti-fascists from
Belgium, Italy, France and Germany. He made a short
film on the Black Church in Britain for a special
Caribbean edition of Full House, which he produced for
BBC2 in 1973, and co-produced and scripted Franco
Rosso's documentary film Mangrove Nine, about the
resistance of the black community to police attacks in
the popular Mangrove restaurant in London.

One of John's greatest achievements was the
International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third
World Books (1982-95), organised jointly with Bogle
L'Ouverture Books and Race Today Publications. He was
joint director with Jessica Huntley of the book fair
and, after the withdrawal of Bogle L'Ouverture, its
sole director. In the call to the first book fair,
John wrote: "This first international book fair of
radical black and Third World books is intended to
mark the new and expanding phase in the growth of the
radical ideas and concepts and their expression in
literature, politics, music, art and social life." The
book fair was, indeed, "a meeting of the continents
for writers, publishers, distributors, booksellers,
artists, musicians, filmmakers, and people who inspire
and consume their creative productions".

The George Padmore Institute, a library and
educational research centre housing materials relating
to the black community of Caribbean, African and Asian
descent in Britain and continental Europe, was
established in 1991 and chaired by John. He was also
the editor at New Beacon Books and of their journal,
New Beacon Review, and published two volumes of his
own poetry, Foundations (1966) and Eyelets of Truth
Within Me.

John could have been anything he wanted, but he was
without ambition. He preferred to stay in the
background and make things happen. He was a man who
dreamed of changing the world.

He is survived by his first wife, Irma, and their sons
Michael and Keith; and Sarah White, his partner, and
their son Wole.

Lawrence Scott writes: My good Trinidadian friend from
Arima, my "pardner", had a remarkable insight into the
people he met in his varied personal and political
life. He made people feel he knew their history,
because he listened and remembered. I experienced this
as a Trinidadian living in London for whom life here
was made more possible by the intuitive understanding
of John. I will miss him for this. Making a home in
Britain while carrying a living sense of the Caribbean
was a creative tension he achieved and helped others

When we first met we engaged in a passionate
discussion of Trinidad's teachers' trade union
politics. He was a West Indian renaissance man, a poet
as well as an oilfield workers' trade unionist and
campaigner. His poems are as powerful as were his
rhetorical skills with the megaphone. The world passed
through his kitchen and his bookshop; you were as
likely to meet a coalminer or steelband man, novelist
or chef, dancer or theologian.

Last Christmas we had dinner in his small kitchen with
friends from South Africa and Nigeria. He spoke
passionately about the politics of Chavez's revolution
in Venezuela. He saw the world through the prism of
Trinidad's creole culture, and believed it to have
changed Britain entirely. He has left us two legacies:
New Beacon Books and The George Padmore Institute. It
is there he will continue in spirit, listening and
remembering the history of ordinary people. It is
there we can go to meet him any day.