Len Johnson was born in Manchester in October 1902. His father was William Johnson, who was an African seaman from Sierra Leone, while his mother was Margaret Maher from Manchester. After leaving the merchant navy Billy Johnson had worked as a boxer on fairground boxing booths and after a spell in engineering, Len eventually followed him into the trade. His professional career lasted from 1922 to 1933. He was an outstanding middle-weight boxer and he defeated some of the best men of the day, including the British middleweight champion Roland Todd and the European middle-weight champion Leon Jaccovacci.
Despite his talent and success he was not allowed to fight for British titles because of his colour. The British Board of Boxing Control barred black boxers - even though born in Britain - for fighting for British titles, a decision very much linked to Britain's role as an imperialist power in Africa and India and notions of white supremacy. Despite controversy the rule was not changed until after the end of the Second World War.
After retiring from the ring Len devoted himself to his boxing booth, which had already been touring for a number of years, appearing at fairs up and down the country. He gave up the booth when World War Two started and worked in Civil Defence. After the war he worked as a bus driver and later a lorry driver.
Towards the end of the War Len joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. In the early 1930s Len had come to know Paul Robeson, the American singer, actor and political activist and it seems likely that it was his influence that pushed Len towards the party.
Len stood for the CPGB in the Moss Side ward six times between 1947 and 1962, though with no success, attracting only a small vote. In 1945 he attended the meeting of the Pan-African Congress in Chorlton-upon-Medlock Town Hall, an important gathering which laid the basis for anti-colonial movements in the British Empire. In the late 1940s he helped set up the New International Society, which for a few years was both a social club and also a campaigning organisation on issues such as racial discrimination and the treatment of black people in the United States, South Africa and in Britain's colonies.
In his later years Len suffered much ill-health and he died Oldham in 1974.
Len Johnson, 1902-1974
Related Object of the Month
October 2009: Len Johnson photograph
Resources about Len Johnson in our collection
The library has archives on Len Johnson, the New International Society and Pan-African Congress.
It also has the following books:
The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress revisited by Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood (1995) - Shelfmark: M19
Len Johnson and the colour bar: the life and times of Len Johnson by Rob Howard (2009) - Shelfmark: S15
The Manchester fighters by Denis Fleming (1986) - Shelfmark: AG Len Johnson Box 2
Never Counted Out!: the story of Len Johnson by Michael Herbert (1992) - Shelfmark: Q10