Olive Elaine Morris was born in Jamaica in 1952, migrating to Britain with her family by the age of nine. In 1969 she became involved in an incident when a Nigerian diplomat was pulled over in his Mercedes because the police accused him of stealing the car, something they were able to do because of the stop and search law that was in place. The diplomat protested his arrest and the incident became violent and Morris stepped in, fighting back when she was handcuffed and being arrested for assault.
“Each time I tried to talk or raise my head I was slapped in the face,” she was quoted as saying in “Violence at Desmond’s Hip City: Gender and Soul Power in London,” an essay by Tanisha C. Ford from the book “The Other Special Relationship: Race, Rights, and Riots in Britain and the United States” (2016). After the police released her some hours later, she went to King’s College Hospital, where pictures were taken of her swollen face and body.
As a result, Morris became active in the UK’s civil rights movement, joining the Black Panther’s Youth Collective and later going on to help start the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD). She organised a protest in 1972 at local government offices when two black children were killed in a fire from a portable heater being knocked over. The government installed central heating after this.
She also brought attention to the number of vacant buildings whilst people remained on waiting lists for housing and, along with other community activists, squatted to help establish self-help community spaces including Sarbarr Bookshop, the first black self-help community bookshop in South London.
Morris went to university in Manchester and during this time went to China and noted how workers were encouraged to develop ideas, rather than being told they could only do the bare minimum like pulling a lever. She wrote “We as Black people, of course, are used to being told by racists that we can only learn one thing at a time.”
Unbelievably, she was able to achieve all of this in 27 short years, sadly passing away too early from Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1979.
The local government in South London named an administrative building after her, but it is now set to be demolished, to clear the way for private housing to be built on the site. There are plans to lay a cornerstone memorialising Morris, and a scholarship fund will be set up in her name. In 2015 Morris also became a face of the Brixton Pound, a currency designed to support businesses in South London.