British (Black) Boxer Len Johnson (1902-1974) and Paul Robeson


Len Johnson was a Black British boxer from Manchester, England, who despite winning more than 90 professional boxing matches, never fought for a British title. This was because the British Boxing Board of Control – the official body that regulates the sport of boxing in the UK – did not, at that time, allow non-White boxers to fight in a title contest. This ‘colour bar’ (as it existed in Britain) stated that only ‘White’ men born in the UK were considered ‘British’, and only these kinds of men could fight one another for a British title. Despite being a very talented boxer, the racism he faced continuously both inside and outside the ring in the UK made it very difficult for him to make much of a living from the sport within which he excelled. This is why he eventually gave-up fighting after WWII – and joined the Communist Party of Great Britain – as a means to fight for social justice and bring an end to racism. Along with fellow British Communists Wilf Charles and Syd Booth (the latter being a veteran of the Spanish Civil War), Len Johnson helped establish the New International Society in Moss Side (Manchester), which advocated the universal application of Human Rights to all people regardless of their skin-colour, gender, religion or ethnic background. The NIS became a very active and prominent anti-racist and civil rights organisation in post-WWII Britain, taking-on and exposing many attempts to apply racist employment policies and other forms of unjust discrimination throughout the UK. In fact, Len Johnson had met Paul Robeson in 1932 in Manchester – where Robeson had encouraged him to legally fight the racism of the British Boxing Board of Control. From that encounter onwards, Len Johnson had nothing but praise for Paul Robeson, particularly as Robeson had made it clear to Johnson that if he could fight so well inside the ring, he could apply his mind to fight equally well outside of it! The pair met again in Manchester on May 10th, 1949 at a NIS meeting designed to discuss the American case of the Trenton Six.

Source: Paul Robeson – A Watched Man – By J Goodman

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