Obi Egbuna, a Nigerian dramatist and political activist who immigrated to the United Kingdom in the 1960s, aspired to be an electrical engineer. However, he eventually recognized that he needed to become a social engineer. He attended the University of Iowa and Howard University in Washington, DC before coming to England in 1961 and staying there until 1973.
In 1968, Egbuna created the British Black Panthers (BBP) or Black Panther Movement (BPM) in London’s Notting Hill, influenced by the social atmosphere and inspired by the Black Power movement in the United States, particularly the words of African-American activist Stokely Carmichael.
According to BlackPast, persons of African, Caribbean, and South Asian heritage in Britain were deemed “Black” at the period, primarily immigrants from former British colonies. According to statistics, the Black population in Britain increased from 300,000 to 1 million between 1961 and 1964, resulting in increased racial and social tensions. Indeed, amid reports of police brutality against Black people, racism was profoundly rooted in British society. Furthermore, authorities were profiling and targeting Black people based on their race. They were beaten up or had drugs planted on them on occasion.
In July 1967, a radical conference dubbed “Dialectics of Liberation” was held in north London amid these concerns and demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Political activists, liberation fighters, and radical academics were among those who attended the conference, which featured Carmichael as the keynote speaker. According to one source, Carmichael called for the formation of militant Black Power in the UK to combat the racist politics of the White British establishment.
Following that conference, the UK’s Black Power movement began to take shape, with anti-racist organizations like the Universal Coloured People’s Association (UCPA) and the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) adopting the Black Power doctrine.
Egbuna was chosen head of the UCPA, which produced a manifesto titled “Black Power in Britain,” not long after Carmichael’s speech at the congress. When Egbuna was re-elected chairman in April 1968, he declined and announced that he was founding the British Black Panthers (BBP). This came after a networking trip to the United States.
In its early years, the BBP was mostly a male-dominated organization made up of West Indians, Black Africans, and South Asians. It was the first Panther group outside the United States, despite the fact that it was not an official branch of the Black Panthers. The BBP, led by Egbuna, staged protests, created Black Power literature, and opposed racism and police brutality in Britain, adopting the Panther’s emblems of berets, military jackets, and raised fists. As a result of the media portraying its members as violent fanatics, it was quickly targeted by the authorities.
Egbuna was arrested in July 1968 for reportedly instigating the murder of police officers in his leaflet “What to Do If Cops Lay Their Hands On A Black Man At The Speaker’s Corner.” “The moment the cops lay their hands on a Black brother, it is the duty of [the] Black crowd [to] surge forward like one gigantic Black steam roller to catch up with the cop,” according to the paper, which urged collective self-defense. Until the brother is rescued, set free, and forced to escape immediately.”
Althea Jones, a Trinidad-born Ph.D. student at the University of London, took over as BBP’s head while Ebguna was in prison. According to BlackPast, by 1970, Jones had begun “grass-roots organization of local Black communities in England around each community’s challenges of racial discrimination in jobs, housing, education, and medical and legal services.”
The BBP would also relocate its headquarters to Brixton, a lower-income Black neighborhood in London. The movement had branches in north, south, and west London at the time, with each branch having approximately 100 members. The police harassed the BBP as they continued to combat racial prejudice and injustice, much like the Panthers in the United States. Locals staged a protest march after police stormed The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant on All Saints Road in Ladbroke Grove, London. Following the protest march, nine BBP leaders, including Jones, Darcus Howe, and Barbara Beese, were wrongly charged with riot and affray.
Following their request for an all-Black jury and their determination to have three members self-represent in court, their trial garnered headlines. The jury acquitted all nine defendants at the end of the day. For the first time, a court publicly admitted that the London police had “proof of racial animosity,” according to BlackPast.
The BBP did participate in legal advocacy for Black people in Britain throughout its existence, as well as creating a Youth League and the Freedom News publication. According to BlackPast, it also planned a march of 10,000 individuals to protest the Immigration Bill of 1971, which limited Black immigration. By 1973, Egbuna’s BBP had split into two sections and had come to an end not long after.
Obi Egbuna Jr., Egbuna’s son, spoke about his father’s political activism in the United Kingdom in 2014. “The social climate influenced my father’s political activities.” According to San Francisco Bay View, “Walter Rodney and his brother Eddie were there, Fela Kuti was there studying music, Tony Martin the Garveyite was there, and Maurice Bishop was there studying law.”
“When my father returned to Nigeria in 1973, he saw Fela perform, and the two hugged like long-lost brothers. Fela did not hesitate to tell others about my father’s daring and heroic activities in the United Kingdom.”
However, Egbuna Jr. emphasized that his father cannot be reduced to his career and time in the United Kingdom. “In Nigeria, my father became the director of ECBS television and the Writers Workshop. My father worked for Murtala Muhammad’s regime, which was nearly slain in the Congo in the same manner as Patrice Lumumba.”
Three years before creating the BBP, Egbuna penned “Wind Versus Polygamy,” a novel and play that was eventually transformed into a play and was colonial Britain’s response to the First World and Arts Festival in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966, according to Egbuna Jr.
“My father had cultural workbooks such as ‘The Anthill,’ ‘Madness of Didi,’ ‘The Minister’s Daughter: Diary of a Homeless Prodigal,’ ‘Black Candle For Christmas,’ ‘The Rape of Lysistrata,’ and ‘The Emperor of the Sea,’ among others.” This gave African writing on the continent a militant nationalist and pan-African flavor, with Black Power serving as the catalyst.”