Altheia Jones-LeCointe, a Trinidadian physician, research scientist, and political activist, is known for her significant role in the Black Power Movement in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s. Her dedication to fighting racial injustice and promoting equality has impacted British society and the global struggle for civil rights.
Early life and education
Born in 1945 in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Altheia Jones-LeCointe was raised in a politically active family. Her father, Dunstan, was a school principal, and her mother, Viola, was a dressmaker and owner of the Little Marvel Dress Shop. Both parents held key positions in the People’s National Movement, a political party founded by Eric Williams, who later became the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
Growing up, Jones-LeCointe and her sisters frequently accompanied their parents during political campaigns and events, where they were exposed to discussions about independence and the organisation of post-colonial societies.
In 1965, at the age of 20, Jones-LeCointe left Trinidad to study chemistry at University College London. Although she was not particularly eager to come to Britain, she recognised the value of obtaining a higher education in the country due to its colonial history and influence.
Arrival in Britain and experiences of racism
Upon her arrival in Britain, Jones-LeCointe was confronted with the harsh reality of widespread racism. She quickly realised that her humanity was consistently under scrutiny and that she was not perceived as the person she believed herself to be.
During her first week at University College London, Jones-LeCointe attended an introductory meeting with her lecturers and classmates, where the conversation stopped abruptly when she entered the room. A fellow student questioned whether she was in the right place, reflecting a persistent issue that still haunts Black people in Britain today.
The racism Jones-LeCointe faced was not limited to verbal insults and derogatory terms; it also manifested as physical, psychological, and emotional challenges. She witnessed the discrimination against Black and South Asian communities and harassment from white residents and the police.
Involvement in the Black Power Movement
To cope with her experiences and seek solidarity with others, Jones-LeCointe began participating in political activities at the West Indian Students’ Centre. During her PhD, she joined the university’s socialist society and the students’ union. These early engagements paved the way for her involvement in the British Black Panther Movement (BPM).
The BPM was founded in April 1968 by Nigerian playwright Obi Egbuna. The group initially consisted of a small group of men who organised demonstrations and produced a newsletter called “Black Power Speaks.” However, after Egbuna’s arrest in July 1968 for publishing a pamphlet advocating collective self-defence against police harassment, the movement underwent a leadership change.
Although former members claim that Jones-LeCointe assumed control of the BPM, she insists that the group was a collective with no single leader. Under her guidance, the BPM focused on organising Saturday schools to teach Black history, publishing the newsletter “Freedom News,” canvassing door-to-door, and implementing a rigorous reading program for members.
Central figures and international connections
As a leading member of the BPM, Jones-LeCointe worked alongside other prominent figures such as her husband, Eddie Lecointe, Keith Spencer, Ira O’Flaherty, and writers Farrukh Dhondy and Mala Sen. The movement’s headquarters were located in Finsbury Park, north London, and Brixton, south London, but it maintained connections with Black and Asian organisations across Britain and Panther groups worldwide.
At its peak, the BPM had around 300 members. However, as dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson has noted, “Our presence was greater than our membership.” The group faced numerous challenges, including racist attacks from the far-right and the police.
The Mangrove Nine Trial
One of the most significant events in the history of the Black Power Movement in Britain was the Mangrove Nine trial in 1970. The trial stemmed from the police harassment of the Mangrove restaurant in west London, a popular meeting place for the Black community that attracted famous diners and white liberals.
When the BPM and future member Darcus Howe decided to organise a demonstration in defence of the restaurant, a violent confrontation between the protesters and the police ensued, leading to the arrest of nine individuals, including Jones-LeCointe and Howe.
During the 55-day trial at the Old Bailey, Jones-LeCointe and Howe represented themselves, enabling them to speak openly about their experiences with police racism. They also invoked rights enshrined in the Magna Carta to demand an all-Black jury. Their powerful oratory skills and ability to expose police lies during cross-examinations ultimately led to their acquittal, marking a monumental victory for the Black community in Britain and a significant embarrassment for the Metropolitan police and the British government.
Legacy and impact on British society
The Mangrove Nine trial marked the pinnacle of the Black Power Movement in Britain. In the years that followed, the movement’s focus shifted, with some members forming Black women’s groups or joining other political organisations. Jones-LeCointe continued to campaign with the BPM, which was renamed the Black Workers’ Movement, until 1974.
Her story has been retold in the critically acclaimed film “Mangrove” by director Steve McQueen as part of his “Small Axe” series. However, Jones-LeCointe has not seen the film or subsequent documentary “Black Power” and remains largely private about her activist achievements.
Throughout her life, Altheia Jones-LeCointe’s unwavering commitment to challenging racial injustice and promoting equality has left an indelible mark on British society and the global struggle for civil rights. Her story is a powerful reminder of the resilience and determination required to combat systemic racism and create lasting change.