Lynching in Britain

Marika Sherwood looks at the history of racist attacks in Britain, following the criticism of police handling of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993.

The term 'lynching' conjures up images of mob murder of blacks by groups like the Ku Klux Klan in the southern states of America. To 'lynch' means to execute by mob action without due process of law – usually someone unknown, murdered solely because of the colour of his or her skin. Such lynchings have been known in Britain since the end of the First World War.

Police handling of racist murders has been the subject of fierce debate in Britain since the launch of the inquiry last year into the death of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. In a similar case, late on the night of January 28th, 1997, passers-by near the North Circular in Edmonton, North London, phoned the police about a black man with his back ablaze. The man, Michael Menson, died two weeks later. Despite pleadings from the family, the police did not interview Menson. Maintaining that he had set fire to himself, they ignored statements from the family and hospital staff that Michael had claimed to have been set on fire by four white youths. The inquest jury decided that Michael had been 'unlawfully killed', and in December 1998 the police apologised for their inaction. Since then, a new inquiry has been opened. However, no action will be taken against the officers originally involved, who are retiring from the force. Why have the police continued to behave in such a cavalier manner with respect to racist attacks? Has the Home Office colluded with their racism?

Lynching in Britain is not new. In a government file at the Public Record Office labelled 'Lynching of coloured men in Britain', there is a letter by F.E.M. Hercules, Secretary of the Society of Peoples of African Origin. Addressed to the Secretary of State for the Colonies on June 12th, 1919, it states:

How can there be a colour problem here? There are only 190,000 coloured people in our population of over 50 million... The real problem is not black skins but white prejudice.

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