Scally Mag takes a look back to the Green Jackets of the 1960s. We speak to Karl Smith, a Liverpool 8 resident at the time, and gain some insight into the movement…
The 1960’s was an era of both cultural renaissance and socio-political tensions across the western world. From the US to the UK, a mobilisation and organisation of marginalised communities delivered a much-needed resistance to various injustices.
In Liverpool, the 1960’s saw the birth of The Beatles and the ‘Mersey Beat’ which spread like wildfire across the Atlantic. However, Black people within the city were experiencing a Mersey beat of a different kind. They needed to organise and protect themselves. Because of this, some members of the community formed what was known as the ‘Green Jackets’- a Black Panther style movement in Liverpool.
The local press in 1958 referred to it as ‘the toughest crime playground in Britain’. In the decade after, The Liverpool Daily Post referred to it as the ‘twilight world of the ghetto’. Yet for some people it was just home. Toxteth. Liverpool 8. Home to one of the oldest Black communities in the country.
A combination of a prejudice local press, the rise of the far-right nationally, and a top-down blame culture designed to cover up increasing socio-economic decline contributed to the plight of non-white people in the 1960’s. Karl Smith grew up in Toxteth during this period.
“It was quite dismal with high Black unemployment and a policing system that operated in the Black community like South African [apartheid] “Security Forces”. As a young Black man, one was always on high alert, especially when going to the City Centre or anywhere outside the Black community. Trouble or problems could emerge instantly, and one had to be ready to react, retaliate or simply run away.”
Racism was omnipresent for Black people in the city in this period. This meant they couldn’t go to different areas, enjoy certain night-clubs, access employment without prejudice, and were often on the end of disproportionate violence from the Police force. Similar experiences were happening in the US surrounding Civil Rights, and Black Liverpudlians in Liverpool 8 were aware of this, as Smith describes.
“We were inspired by events happening in America with the Panthers. At the time, local Black lads frequented Stanley House and we were constantly under attack by the Police and white Skin Heads. Both the Police and white lads would pick us off when caught outside L8 and either beat us up or, beat us up and arrest us on some trumped-up charge.”
Such intense discrimination and unjust treatment would eventually take its toll. The Black Liverpudlians of Liverpool 8 needed to organise to defend themselves as it was clear that those who were there to do so proved themselves to be the perpetrator.
“We became politicised, rejecting the philosophy of non-violence, embracing the teachings of Malcolm X, as well as revolutionary ideas within,” explains Smith. “We formed ourselves into two Panther style Groups: The Young Panther Party (YPP’s) and the Young Panther Movement (YPM’s), educating and training for what we felt was necessary for our own self defence and any revolution that might come our way.”
In his book A Liverpool Black History 1919-2019, Dave Clay suggest the formation of the Green Jackets was an organic one, as opposed to a strategic one, in response to the issues faced, “the Green Jackets does not necessarily identify any particular structure or founders of the group…Mainly, but not exclusively, they were Black/White/Chinese youth from the streets of L8 who challenged the prevailing racism in the city and consequently became the ‘local resistance’ to the community and a ‘gang’ to the local police.”
But why Green Jackets? Clay describes the attire of the group, “the youths gave no definitive answer as to when it was decided to wear green jackets. ‘It just evolved’, they said. The full uniform comprised of Como Shoes, black trousers (strides) and a green jacket (Balfur) while some added black gloves and an Afro comb.”
Having an identity and a sense of togetherness instilled a confidence in the group to coordinate within their area with a view to establishing practical and material outcomes for Liverpool 8. Not only was this formed through resistance to policing, opposing racism, and organising large groups for protection to travel together to ‘sign-on’, but also through political education. Clay explains, “Bobby Nyahoe- a respected Liverpool-born Black activist- would forge a close relationship with the youth. They would make their way to Bobby’s basement flat in Upper Parliament Street …and regularly read, and digest, such books as Soledad Letters (George Jackson) and Soul on Ice (Eldridge Cleaver).”
The Green Jackets represented a cultural movement of resistance in the 1960s. The politicisation and community organisation of the group generated a sense of fear from those in power locally, and this resulted in increased policing within the area. Nonetheless, this did not deter the movement, and Karl Smith believes their legacy lives on in some ways, whilst acknowledging that some of the challenges faced back then still remain.
“Liverpool’s Black community has a greater sense of political power, pride, confidence, self-reliance, and cohesion. This resulted in the establishment of many black led self-help organisations that contributed significantly to the development of increased aspirations. Aspirations beyond substandard education experienced in the past, low paid and unskilled jobs, poor housing, and limited opportunities. Sadly however, much of this has either been dismantled due to the disbursement of black families, bogus austerity rationale, perceived duplication of services, as well as our own internal strife that negatively impacted any gains. Today, many of these gains have long gone and whilst many of the characteristics of the Black community may have changed, the core issues of racism and discrimination remain. However, the visibility of racism and discrimination has changed, insofar as they are not as overt as they once were, they’ve become more insidious, euphemistic, even beguiling, making them more dangerous than they ever were.”
The Green Jackets gave hope to a community experiencing some of the worst outcomes the city has seen. Their work and organisation provided a blueprint of confidence for other Black Liverpool organisations to develop decades later. The Liverpool 8 Law Centre, The Liverpool 8 Action Group, The Liverpool Black Organisation, and The Liverpool 8 Defence Committee were all born out of similar struggles in periods after the 1960s. With increasing political and racial tensions in contemporary Britain, coupled with governmental policy and legislation which aims to ostracise communities, there will be a point in which the spirit of the Green Jackets is needed to resist the inevitable future injustices.
Cover photo taken from ‘A Liverpool Black History 1919-2019, by Dave Clay.