Lynne Edwards interviews Jackie Walker
Born in 1954, Jackie Walker is a qualified teacher, trainer, anti-racist, political activist, writer and author. After almost 15 years as a member, she was expelled from the Labour Party in 2019 because she argued that the term ‘holocaust’ should be widened to include victims of all holocausts. (It only includes genocides post WWII).
I began my interview by asking Jackie how her political opinions were formed?
She laughs: “I believe my opinions were formed in the womb, the moment I was conceived.” Jackie’s mother was a black woman in the civil rights movement in America, and her father was a white Jewish communist. They met when they became involved in the civil rights struggle.
Jackie’s personal experiences of racism have also shaped her views:
“If you’re a black person you cannot opt out of being conscious of injustice. For me I lived that reality. The first time I realised I was black was when my mother was being deported from America for un-American activity. My mother was handcuffed to a security officer. I vividly remember the blazing sun, the security people had my mother, and the air stewardess took us to a waiting room. But in those days there was a room for whites and another for black people…so none of us could use that waiting room. You see if you have continual and regular experiences like that, it’s hard not to be politicised. Some people aren’t though, they respond to trauma or injustice by shutting down, but that’s not the tradition in my family, we are fighters.”
“I came to England in 1959, aged 5, so I’m part of that initial Windrush generation, I’m one of the youngest. Very few children came at that time. They were mostly adults who came to work, not settle. It was then that I experienced day to day racism for the first time. I was already able to read when we arrived, but then a teacher told me I couldn’t possibly be reading, saying I was obviously memorising, because children (like me) couldn’t read.”
Jackie also experienced poverty, being hungry and dirty, and as time went on the racism escalated to include physical assault. “As a child I experienced our house being petrol bombed and dog faeces put through the letterbox. I remember aged 13 being beaten up at a bus stop by some racists whilst everyone just stood and looked on. I’m not that big now, but I was just this tiny skinny little black girl, and these white people were beating me up. So yes it politicises you, yes of course it does.”
Aged just 11 years old, Jackie’s mother tragically died and she was taken into care. “At that point, that would be 1965, there were very few black kids in care. What I realised from my time in care though was that some kids were in a far worse position than I was. Although my mother had died and I didn’t have family to look after me, I hadn’t been beaten by my parents, raped by my father or locked in a cupboard. None of those things were done to me, so that was a lesson I learned early, about how oppression isn’t just about being black.”
Jackie’s intelligence and strength of spirit eventually led her on a path to higher education: “Unbelievably and incredibly for that time, I went from care to university, where I trained to become a teacher. I began teaching in what were called SPA schools or Social Priority Areas, where the proportion of children on free school dinners was incredibly high. At least 50% of the South London pupils were Caribbean black boys. A lot had been initially left behind in the Caribbean by their parents. Then between the ages of 10 and 15 they were brought to England to be reunited with family, but the subsequent level of distress in those homes was huge.”
Although Jackie had been working on anti-racism as a teacher in schools, in the 70s and 80s she got her first professional role as Advisor Teacher in Development Studies and Equalities, traveling widely and working with lots of agencies. Jackie also returned to university to start a PhD on ‘The Development of Black British Identity in Literature’, but this process became increasingly difficult with three young children.
So, instead of completing a doctorate, Jackie ended up writing a book, based on her own family history, called Pilgrim State. “I named it after the psychiatric hospital my mother was put in during the McCarthy era in America. The book sold at auction for a ridiculous amount of money.” That allowed Jackie to leave teaching and, as an ‘officially’ retired person, to concentrate on what she wanted to do.
Her mother will always be the person Jackie truly admires: “That’s what my book was about. She was an extraordinary woman, a black female activist, incarcerated in a mental facility for her beliefs, who attended university in 1950s America. Can you imagine what it was like for her to do that, go to university? Back in 1962-65 social workers wrote that she was delusional, because they just didn’t believe she could have done that.”
Asked about her view of capitalism, Jackie said bluntly: “I think capitalism will be our destruction, it’s on the cards that we could see the end of what we call civilisation. Capitalism is rapacious and is forever hungry. On the one side we have Tories and on the other a Blairite Labour Party, and what binds them is capitalism. They both have a fundamental belief in the ‘market’ system. We can see that in the idea of the Great British Energy Company put forward by Starmer, it’s just an excuse not to nationalise. Starmer’s plan won’t work, it won’t lower costs, or put the energy needs of people at the forefront because essentially neoliberals put companies and profits first. In the end, global warming doesn’t care about losing power, it doesn’t care about what the Telegraph writes, it doesn’t give a toss about what Starmer says because it’s coming, and there will be very little choice in the end.” Although global warming is THE issue that causes Jackie most concern, she also believes you cannot change the outcome unless you change the economic system that’s driving it.
Jackie sees herself as a socialist but believes socialism isn’t one single theory:
“I personally go by a Marxist interpretation of history and how the world works, which means I believe it’s about power relations. I left the Labour Party the first time when they got rid of Clause 4, because I could see back then what was going to happen. Now what you’ve got is the resurrection of Blair with Starmer. That’s not socialism. I don’t want people dragged out of their houses to be re-educated or forced to work in potato fields in their flip flops. That’s not socialism either. No, I want the interests of those who have power to be the interests of the people, and not the interests of those who managed to accumulate the most capital.”
“I’m also pretty terrified at the moment about how we are being set up for a World War. Stocks and shares for the arms trade are really going up. The Tory budget for arms is going up, at a time when children in this country are literally starving. If you took cameras 30 years ago to show people queueing at food banks, with working people going to those food banks, people would never have believed it. They’d have been shocked and horrified. But slowly, gradually, we’ve grown to accept the unacceptable. Nobody asks the appropriate questions anymore, we don’t have investigative journalism. One of the things that still shocks me is the bias of the British media. People in the media just go and ask politicians what leak they want them to report on, that’s the level of journalism we’re at today.”
“To me, issues of social justice are not peripheral to my life, it’s what we talk about at the dinner table with the grandchildren, it’s part of our family culture. My eldest brother is a leading black gay activist, we are a family that stands up to oppression.”
As we have discovered, Jackie’s socialism started at birth. But life events have compounded her belief in fairness and justice. She has experienced terrible tragedy, has been ostracised, lived through physical hardships and experienced extreme racism and abuse. Yet she remains open and truthful. She still empathises with, and finds time to fight for, the rights of others. Coming from a strongly political family, Jackie has passed that on to her own children and grandchildren. Brave, tenacious, intelligent, strong, funny and at times angry, Jackie retains an indestructible sense of right and wrong informed by the Marxist principles that underpin her beliefs.