In the spring of 1978, photographer and activist Syd Shelton woke up to parades of people outside his home in Charing Cross. It was 7am and some 10,000 were getting ready for a Rock Against Racism march that would travel from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in east London. When it was time to leave, the crowd reached 100,000.
A stage was waiting for them in the park with bands including the Clash, X-Ray Spex, Sham 69 and Steel Pulse – all members of the movement. Rock Against Racism (RAR) was set up two years before, sparked by a drunken rant by Eric Clapton at a gig in Birmingham, which praised the controversial Tory MP Enoch Powell and urged the country to “get the foreigners out.” It also had a wider social agenda, namely to tackle the rise of white nationalist groups and ease tensions between communities persecuted by the rightwing press and police.
Shelton joined the movement in 1977 for a demonstration against an ‘anti-mugging’ march organised by the National Front in Lewisham. He started photographing and continued to do so for the next four years until RAR ended. These images now feature in a new exhibition at London’s Autograph ABP. It captures the late 1970s at a time when white skinheads danced to Jamaican ska and black kids embraced punk. It includes images of musicians such as Elvis Costello, the Specials and Misty in Roots.
In their some 500 gigs around the UK, Rock Against Racism brought artists of different races together on the same stage. In the exhibition at Glasgow's Street Level Photoworks, you can see photographs of Misty in Roots and Tom Robinson group-hugging at Alexandra Palace, or Jimmy Pursey and Steel Pulse saluting the crowd at Victoria Park.
It was the same with the audiences. “It was such a great mish-mash,” said Shelton in an interview with The Guardian, “from Socialist Workers Party supporters to people who were simply anti-racist. And it wasn’t just a matter of preaching to the converted: “I came across a photo of a woman called Sharon who had been a racist skinhead but Rock Against Racism changed her mind. She became one of our main activists. We saw it as an argument we wad to win.”