“We do not make a noise but we get things done”: The League of Coloured People’s campaign against racial discrimination in the British armed forces 1939

The outbreak of the Second World War posed a problem to the British government regarding their colonial population. On one hand, Britain needed the support from its colonies for the war effort, in the form of manpower as well as through resources. Therefore, the British authorities were well aware that Britain needed to demonstrate unity within the Empire in order to secure the colonies’ support for the war. On the other hand, Britain´s colonial system was based on racial differences and exploitation of its colonies. Britain also wanted to uphold these structures once the war was over, and therefore not giving in to the growing voices demanding democratic rights in the colonies. The British government was aware that it went down extremely badly in the Black community and in the colonies that the British Empire should support Britain in the War, while at the same time cases of racial discrimination, termed “Colour Bar”, were discussed again and again in the press and in civil society.[1] This specific constellation opened a window of opportunity for the Black political groups in London to protest with leverage against discriminatory laws. Most active in this was the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP), a prominent Black political group campaigning against racial discrimination in London in the 1930s and 1940s. It was presided by its Jamaican founder, the physician and convinced Christian Harold Moody, who zealously campaigned for reforms against racial discrimination in Britain. (Introduced in a previous Blog Post here). This blogpost examines the campaign of the LCP, the West African Students Union (WASU) and the International African Service Bureau (IASB) against discrimination in the British armed forces.

The outbreak of the Second World War thus provided Harold Moody and the LCP with increased opportunities to insist on equal rights within Britain. As a pacifist on grounds of Christian charity, he opposed war in principle. However, he agreed to Britain’s entry into the Second World War because of the struggle against the racial discrimination of the Third Reich. A thorn in Moody’s side was discrimination in the army. Five of his six children served in the army or RAF as young adults. This further heightened Moody’s awareness of injustices in these institutions. For the duration of the war, the LCP repeatedly criticised black troops for being treated unequally to whites. This happened in many instances, and the LCP was in most cases simply ignored by the British government, for example when trying to abolish corporal punishment for soldiers of African descent. But Harold Moody and the LCP, together with the WASU and the Marxist and anticolonial IASB, managed to have a successful campaign against the Army Order 89. This order stated that only people of “pure European descent” could rise to the rank of commissioned officer in the British forces.[2]

Harold Moody on a trip to Jamaica, 1946. © British Library

The patriotic conviction to enlist in the British forces was strong in the Moody family, five out of six children volunteered to join the British forces. Charles Moody, son of Harold Moody, was 22 years old at the outbreak of war. Interested in a career in the military, he applied for training as officer in the British military. After a positive evaluation of his written application, he was invited for an interview at the War Office. However, the interview was quickly ended. Upon seeing Charles Moody, the interviewing officer simply told him that he was not suitable for officer training because he was not “of pure European descent”.[3] For the English-born Charles Moody, this was a frustration. In the British armed forces in 1939, it was generally only possible for White people to take up an officer’s role. In European peacetime, the army still served as enforcer of British authority in the overseas colonies, and accordingly, discriminatory laws, practices and mindsets were strongly entrenched in the army cadre.

The fact that his son was denied a career in the British military, just as he was denied a hospital career earlier in his life, soured Harold Moody. The News Letter’s coverage of the deployment of a total of 400,000 Black soldiers in the British armed forces deteriorated from support of the war to reporting on unequal treatment between Black and White members of the army. Harold Moody wrote letters of protest to the War Office and Colonial Office about the glass ceiling for Black people in the armed forces. In the News Letter of November 1939, Moody informs the readers of the on-going campaign, raising it to a general fight against the “Colour Bar”: “Our members will remember that we have been working at this question for some time and that we took up the matter more actively immediately upon outbreak of the war. (…) Our work in the main is to establish the fact, in a practical manner, that in the British Commonwealth of Nations there cannot be and shall not be any colour, racial or religious bar.”[4]

The League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) on a conference of the group in London in 1936 (Harold Moody in the middle of the front row). © SOAS Special Collections.

The continuing discrimination against Black people in England played a central role in undermining the belief in justice and fairness within British society, both within the LCP and the network of Black political groups within London as a whole. Moody teamed up with the two London based Black social progress organisations West African Students Union (WASU) and the Marxist International African Service Bureau (IASB), to give more weight to his campaign for the abolishment of the glass ceiling in the British armed forces. All three groups pushed against the Army Order 89 in their journals, went on to speak out against it on public meetings and continued to lobby with British officials. The War Office recognized the growing pressure and agreed to meet representatives of the groups in late autumn 1939. After several meetings, the British government agreed that people from the colonies should be allowed for promotion to commissioned officers, at least for the duration of the war.[5] Following this announcement, Harold Moody proudly stated in the News Letter: “We do not make a noise but we get things done.”[6] The British government agreed that for the duration of the war not only White “British citizens” but also “British subjects” from the colonial territories, as well as people from Great Britain who were not “of European descent”, could enter the military career. The wording proposed by the Colonial Office read as follows: “British subjects from the colonies and British protected persons in this country, including those who are not of European descent, are now eligible for emergency commissions in His Majesty’s forces.”[7]

The temporary admission was a stopgap by the British government not to undermine its own propaganda of a united British Empire to fight Nazi Germany with obvious racial discrimination in its own ranks. Moody was not satisfied with this and continued to campaign for the permanent abolition of the Army Order 89. While he stated in the News Letter that he certainly welcomed the temporary suspension of the exclusion of Black people from the higher ranks of the British Army, he noted further: „(…) if the principle is accepted now, surely it must be acceptable for all time. (…) Our objective is to do all we can to break down completely the Colour Bar as far as officialdom is concerned.“[8]

The phrases “for the duration of the war” and “of European descent” were eventually removed from the Army Order 89 in 1945. This was partly due to the fact that the British government only in hindsight realised that otherwise it would be necessary to strip non-White British subjects who had earned their promotion during the war of their rank. Although following the Second World War, overt discrimination was officially abolished in the British Army, discriminatory practices remained widespread well into the 1970s, such as tending to recommend Black persons for promotion less often, giving them lower ratings, or generally not allowing them to rise to the top ranks of the army.[9]

Charles Arundel Moody, in uniform as infantry colonel of Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, ca. 1943. © Wikimedia Commons

Charles Moody started officer training in 1940, and was subsequently promoted to the rank of commissioned officer, as only the second Black person.[10] He then served first on the English Channel, then in Italy, mainly escorting prisoners of war, and in Egypt, where he rose to the rank of Major in 1945. At the end of the war, he sought a transfer to the home region of his father, Jamaica, where he took up a post in the British Caribbean Regiment. He served there until the independence of the Caribbean West Indies Federation in 1958, and then from 1962 in the armed forces of then freshly independent Jamaica, where he became the first Commanding Officer of the Jamaican Territorial Army, and as such was admitted to The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1966.[11]

Legislative changes aimed at equality were rare events. Most protests against the “Colour Bar”, such as the protest against corporal punishment of African soldiers in the British armed forces, did not lead to policy changes. The success of the campaign against Army Order 89 represents an extraordinary victory in the fight against the Colour Bar. The outcome suggests that the Colour Bar was detrimental to the sense of unity between Britain and its Empire, which the British government wanted to maintain at all costs in order to support the colonies in the war. In his memoirs, Nnamdi Azikiwe, who visited London as a journalist in 1943 and later became prime minister of the then independent Nigeria, writes about the daunting effects of the colour bar in England on the colonial periphery: „Nevertheless, the colour bar, as it existed in England, was mortal to the solidarity of the Common-wealth.”[12]

Propaganda poster by John Nunney, commissioned by the British government, to generate support and solidarity within the British Empire during the Second World War. Exact date unknown, ca. 1939-1945. © Imperial War Museum

Hence, the Black diaspora and African men in the British colonies were well aware that they were being called upon to fight against fascism and for the democratic freedom of Western Europe, while the colonial world would remain subject to British oppression. The Black political groups in London were well aware of this tightrope act by the British authorities. This opened a window of opportunity for Black social progress groups in London during the Second World War, which they deliberately exploited with high-profile public protest to exert pressure on the British government.

[1] E.g. when the famous Trinidadian cricketeer Learie Constantine was refused lodging in the “Imperial Hotel” in London in 1943 because he was Black. See e.g. Hill, Jeffrey: Learie Constantine and Race Relations in Britain and the Empire, London, Bloomsbury, 2019.

[2] Sherwood, Marika: World War II: Colonies and Colonials, Savannah Press, London, 2013, p. 77.

[3] Bourne, Stephen: Mother Country: Britain´s Black Community at the Home Front, 1939-45, The History Press, Cheltenham, 2020, p. 21-22.

[4] British Library (henceforward BL): League of Coloured Peoples News Letter, November 1939, p. 2.

[5] BL: WASU Vol. VII, No. 1, Mai 1940, p. 16, League of Coloured Peoples News Letter, December 1939.

[6] BL: League of Coloured Peoples News Letter, November 1939, p. 3.

[7] The National Archives (henceforward TNA): CO 323/1673/5, Internal Memorandum, December 1939.

[8] BL: League of Coloured Peoples News Letter, December 1939, p. 2.

[9] Kushner, Tony: „Without intending any of the most undesirable features of a colour bar”: race science, Europeannes and the British armed forces during the twentieth century, in: Schaffner, Gavin (Ed.): Racializing The Soldier, Routledge, London, 2013, S. 374-383.

[10] The first one being Walter Tull, a dentist-turned professional footballer, who was promoted to the rank of a commissioned officer during the First World War in 1917. For further reading on Tull´s extraordinary life see Bourne, Stephen: Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community and the Great War, The History Press, Cheltenham, 2019.

[11] Bourne, Stephen: The Motherland Calls: Britain’s Black Servicemen & Women 1939-45, Stroud, History Press, 2012, p. 14-18.

[12] Azikiwe, Nnamdi: My Odyssey, London, C. Hurst & Company, 1970, p. 203.

Cite this blog post
Simeon Marty (2022, August 12). “We do not make a noise but we get things done”: The League of Coloured People’s campaign against racial discrimination in the British armed forces 1939. The London Moment. Retrieved May 28, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/onnf

Simeon Marty

I am a PhD student at the Department of History of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and member of the research project “The London Moment”. After completing my B.A. in History (major) and Science of Religion (minor) at the Universities Fribourg and Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne in 2016, I recently graduated from King’s College London with a master’s degree in World History and Cultures. My M.A. thesis “The mouse that roared: The Anguillan secessionist movement and British policy making in the decolonisation of the Anglophone Caribbean, 1966-1971” explores the interconnection between cultural stereotypes in post-war British administration and policy making in the process of decolonisation. In my PhD Project, I will explore the transnational networks that have been established by non-Europeans, especially anti-colonial and Pan-African movements, in London during the Second World War. This research hopes to uncover to what extent the “London Moment” with its extraordinarily high concentration of political groupings and international political actors offered new perspectives for anti-colonial activists and intellectuals in the formulation of social and political alternatives. In a broader sense, it will examine how this has contributed to the manifold processes of decolonisation that followed shortly afterwards.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search