It was 50 years ago this week that Martin Luther King made his famous “I have a dream” speech.  Whilst the impact of that speech on equality in the USA is of little doubt, in the same year, less well known events were happening in Bristol, England, but with an equally notable impact on local race equality.

It all started when 18 year old Guy Bailey went for an interview for a job with the Bristol Omnibus Company.  However, when he told the Receptionist he was there for an interview, her response was “I don’t think so.”  

After Bailey asked her to check, the Receptionist called to her manager “Your two o’clock appointment is here, and he’s black.”  The response from the manager? “Tell him the vacancies are full.”

In those few words the manager exposed the Company’s “colour bar” on employees working on its busses.  Inspired by King in the States, a peaceful boycott of Bristol’s busses was organised in protest against the bar.  The protest gained media attention and then public support, including from some leading politicians at the time.  Eventually, the bus company relented and agreed to end its policy.

Five years after the Bristol Boycott, as it became known, the Race Relations Act 1968 was passed, which made race discrimination in recruitment unlawful.  These days it is hard to imagine that any employer would act in the same overt and unabashed way as the Bristol Omnibus Company, though how much this is because companies now know better to avoid such explicit racism is less clear.

50 years on, it is worth being reminded that in many ways employment rights which are often now taken for granted once had to be fought for.  It therefore seems a shame that current discussion of employment rights focuses almost entirely on perceived “red tape” and the nuisance they cause employers, losing sight of the importance they have had for fair employment conditions in the UK.