Three ways to tackle historic racism and build bridges to brighter futures for young people

As Black History Month draws to a close, YST Athlete Mentor and Triple Jump Olympian Vernon Samuels blogs about his history and how we can all make a difference to young Black people.

The 1950s Push Back –The influence of example in the fight for racial justice

During the 1950s Martin Luther King led protests against racial injustice towards Rosa Parks, an African American woman from Montgomery Alabama. At that time in Alabama, Black people could legally be banned from sitting at the front of buses which were reserved for white people only.  Rosa Parks was briefly jailed and fined for refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man.

The Montgomery bus boycott was a civil rights protest against the injustice of segregated seating on the buses. The US Supreme Court ultimately ordered Montgomery to integrate its bus system.

Meanwhile in Britain, the public profile and outcome of the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott inspired and roused a number of Black activists local to Bristol, to mobilise and challenge the legality of the “colour bar” that existed on the Bristol buses. At that time the Bristol Omnibus Company refused Black and Asian people from becoming bus conductors and drivers allowing them only to access the less desirable and lower paid jobs of maintenance workers and cleaners at the bus depots.

The company argued that the quality of Bristol’s Black workers was too low for the front-line jobs and, supposedly, that white bus conductresses feared working with Black male drivers. Even the local council supported the policy.

The status quo continued until 1963 when the situation of a young Black man, Guy Reid-Bailey, came to light. Mr Bailey applied for an advertised front-line job on the buses but was turned down simply because he was black. This was the catalyst that galvanised and mobilised local people (Black and white) to take direct action, staging a series of protests and demonstrations, including a bus boycott lasting 4 months. During this time, Black people and others sympathetic to the protests refused to travel on the buses. While the boycott didn’t hit the pockets of the bus company too much, it did gain traction with media - first locally and then nationally.

The “Colour bar” is broken -  shameful practice of racial discrimination recedes after exposure

With growing political and public pressure on the Bristol Omnibus Company they finally ended the colour bar. On 28 August, the announcement was made that there would be no more discrimination in employing bus conductors and drivers. Incredibly this was on the same day that Martin Luther King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in the USA.  

All the while the boycott was happening, my father Norman Samuels asked – “what can I do?” He didn’t want to march, but he did feel he could apply for a job so that he could be judged fairly on his ability and character rather than the colour of his skin. Once the colour bar came down and the opportunity for a job came up, he applied to work on the buses. He became one of four people (two Black two Asian) who were hired as bus conductors. A year later, my father took and passed his test as Bristol’s first Black bus driver. The outcome of the Bristol Bus Boycott significantly influenced the crucial Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968. But the problem was still far from solved. Racial prejudice may have been stripped of its legitimacy, but it had not been stripped of its powerful bias against equality.

My father’s quietly courageous act of putting himself forward to change our perceptions of what we can aspire to be in the face of great hostility and resistance to change is an illustration of the fight many Black people still face today in pursuit of their dreams, goals and better life outcomes.

Learning to grow - challenging circumstances require courageous actions

My father passed his bus driver test on October 15th 1964. This was the same day my mum Hermie Samuels gave birth to a beautiful, bouncing, baby boy… me! Although I was born a healthy child, I was born into a set of challenging circumstances where my trajectory towards reaching my true potential was hindered by:

  • poor health during childhood
  • low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence caused by bullying in the school system
  • being labelled as a low academic achiever at age 11 (year 7)
  • racism and its destructive effects on me and my family.

After a shaky academic start at secondary school, I was fortunate to be encouraged and supported by my parents and two PE teachers Pete Smith and Clive Smith. They believed in me, saw my true potential and helped me develop not only as an athlete but also as a human being. I remember as a pre-teenage child being encouraged by my father, who said

Whatever you do, even if you become someone who empties the bins, do it with passion and excellence.

Self-belief changes everything - learning to trust our imperfect selves

Up to this point of my life, I had learned how to be resilient, facing all the challenges of my background, but I struggled to have the courage to set ambitious goals or have the confidence to stretch myself in positive ways to tap into my hidden potential. For me, self-belief didn’t happen until age 14 after my first national triple jump title at the All England School Athletics Championships when my PE teacher, Pete Smith, sat me down and said:

You have an incredible talent and if you keep training and doing what you’re doing… the world is your oyster.

It was really only at that point that a switch turned on in my head and my mindset flipped from “not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough, not healthy enough” to “I am not perfect but I am strong enough, smart enough, good enough, to pursue the audacious goal of becoming an Olympian.”

With the right mindset, skills development and mentoring support, it took me 10 years from my epiphany of “good enough” to achieve my Olympic dream. Not only did I develop the courage and confidence to navigate the course to becoming an Olympian, but this kid who struggled in the classroom achieved a degree in Psychology and Business the same year as qualifying for the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea in 1988 - where I finished 13th in a field of 46 of the best triple jumpers on the planet!

Worrier or action taker - Which are you?

On my journey to Olympic success I attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas Texas, USA. While at university as a student-athlete, I had the great fortune to attend an event featuring poet and writer Maya Angelo who spoke with real poise and power. Maya said a whole load of stuff that night which resonated deeply with the audience of students, but one thing she said really struck me and I fervently scribbled down my paraphrase of the quote as soon as the evening was over:

There are two types of people in this world: those who worry and those who care. Those who worry about a problem show concern, but those who care act to remove the problem.

If you are someone working with young people, consider how many young Black people fail to perform well under conventional classroom conditions. How many are written off as a “failure” at school and then by society? I have found where the perceptions of ability and expectations of achievement are low to start with, this can all too often lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy of underachievement. When we come across the failing of Black students, what do we do? Do we just show a little concern and worry, or do our actions show we really care?

And how do we care? I believe we can care by cultivating a growth mindset for those who are considered outliers and underachievers.

Seeing is believing - Three ways to tackle historic racism

What we see affects our behaviour and what we attempt to achieve. In my opinion, we need to use our engagement with young underachieving Black students in schools (and Black individuals in management and leadership structures that support young people) to build bridges to stronger, brighter futures, by:

  • Seeing more than what others see. Nobody is perfect. Through our interventions and interactions, we need to see more in young Black people than imperfections or mistakes made in the past and the messiness that often comes from trying new things
  • Helping them to see further than what others see. We need to consider how we build the courage of self-belief by reframing the focus from failure to learner. We need to help them see further than any failures experienced and the fear of future failure.
  • Helping them see a brighter future with them in it. We need to cultivate aspirations and encourage underachievers and outliers to see their own potential, character and ability before anyone tells them to set their expectations lower than the potential they have. In other words, we need young Black people to dare to dream.

Martin Luther King’s bravery as an action taker created a ruling by the Supreme Court to make the injustice of racial segregation on the buses of Montgomery Alabama illegal. He wasn’t just concerned but he cared enough to take action again and again which ultimately culminated in him being awarded the Nobel peace prize for his exceptional leadership skills in the principles of peace, nonviolence and direct action.

In the face of opposition and hostile racism, my father showed up to take (and pass) the test as a bus driver. He was rewarded with a bus driver’s licence and the opportunity to drive the people of Bristol around safely for the next 18 years. My dad showed he cared about a better future, and his actions contributed to the first race relations legislation in Britain.

I was born on the same day that Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and my dad was awarded his bus driver’s licence. Because of the inspiration and courageous actions of giants like Martin Luther King and ordinary men like my dad, I’ve been able to muster the courage to “dare to dream”, pursue excellence and release my potential for the benefit of my family, the people of Bristol, the whole nation and beyond. One example of that is writing this blog, in the hopes that it might make more people think differently about the challenges young Black people face and how we can all help to overcome them.

I, of course, believe that all lives matter, but I truly believe that when we care (and are not just concerned) about the future of Black lives, we all have the opportunity to flourish by tapping into our enormous potential. Let’s all dare to take a little more action to help ourselves and others to see more than, further than and before the effects of racism have extinguished the fire of passion and excellence from young people’s psyches. That way, we all have a chance to reduce or eliminate the negative impact of racism in our quest to help young people find the best version of themselves, individually and collectively.  


A headshot of Olympian and Youth Sport Trust Athlete Mentor Vernon Samuels. He is wearing a light blue t shirt and stood against a beige wall.
Published on 30 October 2020