Darcus Howe remembered by Diane Abbott

26 February 1943 – 1 April 2017
The politician recalls her friend and fellow activist, a fearless, outspoken and witty man with a pleasingly mischievous streak

• Simone Veil remembered by Robert Badinter

I remember very clearly the first time I saw Darcus. He was standing in the Old Bailey representing himself during the Mangrove Nine trial in 1971 [at which a group of black activists faced charges including inciting a riot over police targeting of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, west London]. I was watching from the gallery and he seemed this incredible, almost romantic figure standing up against the state on behalf of the black community.

I was active in the women’s movement and also the “scrap sus” campaign and so Darcus and I moved in the same circles, although he was a far more prominent figure. He was editing Race Today and part of a generation of activists who were really internationalist in outlook. They took it for granted that people from the Caribbean, Africa and India were all involved in the same struggle. Today we’ve become more fractured and caught up in individual concerns, and perhaps we have lost something of that sense of common cause.

Once Darcus started to appear on television, his fame spread and he became known to a whole new generation. It helped that he was very outspoken. He also instinctively understood that you have to use every platform available to make your voice heard – writing, appearing on television, whatever it took. He had a big personality but he always understood that it wasn’t about him, that there was a bigger picture.

He had a really mischievous streak and enjoyed provoking people. When he first met me I don’t think he thought I was quite leftwing enough but, as time went on, he could see that I was prepared to make a stand on issues. He was a good person to have on your side because he wasn’t afraid to say what needed to be said, stand up for himself and the community, and slap people down if necessary.

While he could be quite acerbic at times, he was also very witty. After I became an MP, I got to know him well and would take him to lunch at the House of Commons. He was a very social man and he used to love talking to whoever was around. We’d sit and talk about politics and he would stress how important it still was to keep speaking out for people who didn’t have a voice. He never lost his passion and his belief in the need for change.

The more time I spent with him, the more I realised that the public image of Darcus – as this controversial person with opinions on everything – wasn’t the whole picture. I think of him instead as a public intellectual, someone who could take ideas and political analysis and disseminate them to a wide audience. He was very smart, very funny, an absolutely brilliant man. Yes, he sometimes made people feel uncomfortable but you need outriders like Darcus, people who are prepared to speak truth to power and stand up for what they believe in. There will always be pushback when you speak out: Darcus knew that and I’ve learned it too.

But there is also hope – I think there’s a definite through-line from Darcus to the younger generation of writers such as Reni Eddo-Lodge. They may be online more than they are on the streets, but they are still speaking out and making their voices heard in the way that Darcus did.

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