As an influential figure for civil rights and equality, campaigning comes naturally to political activist and cultural historian Patrick Vernon OBE. From playing a key role in campaigning for the Windrush Generation to launching the 100 Great Black Britons campaign, Vernon has spent the last 30 years passionately fighting for change.
Vernon’s journey into campaigning and activism can be traced back to when he left his hometown of Wolverhampton to study law at Manchester Metropolitan in the early 1980s.
Missing out on student accommodation in halls of residence, Vernon rented a flat in Hulme situated on a large estate of council flats known locally as The Crescents.
“It was a very multicultural area, a lot of black people, Irish people, and students. It was fantastic and there was a good nightlife,” he explained.
“I enjoyed the social side of being in Manchester. It was at the time when the Hacienda had just opened. I think outside of London, Manchester was the best place to be.”
Studying in Manchester at this time gave Vernon his first taste of campaigning and activism when he took on the role of student representative, sitting on a committee representing other students on crucial issues.
He said: “It was during the miners’ strike, so there were lots of rallies taking place in Manchester as well as student sit-ins. It was a hotbed of activism during the 1980s.”
He got to know Sri Lankan activist Viraj Mendis, who came under threat of deportation. Vernon’s support for Mendis led him to work on his first campaign.
He said: “There was three of us who would go to the Arndale (shopping) centre on a Saturday morning with placards saying ‘stop the deportation laws’. That was probably the first campaign I got involved in.
“I’m heavily involved in the Windrush scandal and 30 years ago when I was a student I was involved in this similar case, in immigration. It’s funny how things go full circle.
“Being a student in the law department empowered you. Studying law gave me the confidence to challenge and to advocate. I still do that now.”
For students today, who are passionate about change and social justice, Vernon has one piece of advice to give.
“Whatever passions you have, just volunteer and learn. You learn more volunteering for an organisation or a cause and that gives you good insights for when you leave university in terms of developing your career.”
After graduating, Vernon studied for a masters in law at Warwick University before moving to London, where he took on several roles within the voluntary and public sector.
Vernon then moved into the health and social care sector, working with many, often marginalised communities and campaigning to address health inequality for minority groups. It was around this time Vernon’s political career also began when he was elected as a councillor in the London borough of Hackney, a role which he stayed in until 2014.
Vernon has been an influential figure for civil rights and equality throughout his career.
He was awarded an OBE in 2012 for his hard work and commitment to the reduction of health inequalities for black and ethnic minorities, a moment he describes as one of his proudest career achievements.
Most recently, Vernon was recognised in British Vogue’s September issue – seen as its most important issue of the year – for his role in campaigning for the rights of the Windrush generation.
Vernon has been a leading campaigner for National Windrush Day
He was also featured in the Black Powerlist 2021, which celebrates and honours influential black people.
Vernon played a key role in campaigning for the Windrush Generation, helping to expose the scandal involving people who were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, threatened with deportation and wrongly deported from the UK.
He said: “I first started campaigning after making a documentary called A Charmed Life about Eddie Martin Noble who was born in Jamaica in 1917. He came to Britain in 1943 as a 25-year-old, served in the RAF and stayed on in Britain after the war.
“I got to know Eddie by coincidence, he lived in Hackney a few miles from where I lived. And I made a documentary about his life which led me to start campaigning for National Windrush Day. I realised there were these stories, these experiences, that were not told in the public domain and not recognised in history books.”
For over 10 years, Vernon has been a leading campaigner for National Windrush Day, which was successfully granted by the government in 2018.
“My role in the campaign was to work with faith leaders and organisations along with several MPs. At the time, governments weren’t interested in the idea of a Windrush Day. But when we had the Windrush scandal in 2018, that’s when the government took it seriously.”
Even with the recognition of National Windrush Day, Vernon feels this is only the beginning and there’s more work to be done, something which has recently been brought to attention during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement during the COVID-19 lockdown last year.
“The resurgence of Black Lives Matter because of George Floyd’s murder is now a universal human rights campaign. This time round, more people are fully embracing Black Lives Matter and starting to understand that everyday and structural racism is not a figment of Black people’s imagination.
“The question which all Black people are asking is: is this the start of a serious discourse on race relations in Britain? For many years, race was off the agenda – despite Grenfell and the Windrush scandal.
“However, the removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was a similar iconic moment to when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. The demolition has kick-started a national conversation about Britain’s colonial past and its crimes against humanity which Black people have had to endure for the last 400 years.”
Another landmark campaign for Vernon was 100 Great Black Britons, a successful movement to celebrate a thousand years of Black presence in Britain.
“In 2002, the BBC had a TV series called 100 Great Britons, where they tried to find the greatest Briton of all time. Out of 100 people shortlisted, there was no one of any ethnic background or colour on the list.”
Frustrated by the widespread exclusion of the Black British community from mainstream popular conception of ‘Britishness’, Vernon set up a poll for the public to vote for their greatest Black Briton.
“I decided to do a counter-campaign. I did an alternative list to say actually, there’s been a Black presence in Britain going back a thousand years.”
The campaign was a huge success and Crimean war nurse Mary Seacole was voted as the greatest black Briton. This resulted in several Black historical figures being included in the national curriculum for the first time.
In 2019, following the wake of Brexit and the 2018 Windrush scandal, Vernon re-launched the campaign to ensure the continued legacy and achievement of Black people in Britain.
In contrast to the 2003-2004 list, the updated list, which is not ranked, has been compiled by a panel after members of the public were invited to submit nominations. An accompanying book was published last September.
“The book could easily have been called 1,000 Great Black Britons, such was the number of nominations, all of whom have been listed in the book, alongside biographies of the top 100.”
The book features well-known names including model Naomi Campbell, actor Idris Elba, four-time Olympic champion Sir Mo Farah, racing driver Sir Lewis Hamilton and rapper, singer and songwriter Stormzy, alongside contemporary figures such high court judge Linda Dobbs, social theorist Stuart Hall, and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
Vernon is keen to educate and inspire young people and has since launched a campaign with retired headteacher Yvonne Davis to send a copy of the book to every secondary school in Britain. More than 1000 schools have received a copy, with many local authorities bulk buying copies for their local schools and libraries.
“There is a key golden thread in most of the biographies that are covered in the book in that all the people never gave up, they struggled, whatever field they were in, or discipline or time in history, they were ahead of the game and they never gave up.
“If that can inspire young people around our own personal goals, achievement and fighting for equality in Britain and learning and educating then I think that would be a fantastic legacy.”