May 16, 1979 saw an extraordinarily unique game of professional football take place, that if played today would cause mass uproar, protest and frenzy across the media. An all-white football team geared up to go against a team comprised solely of black players, with the black players hoping to battle against racism, which was incredibly rife in the sport.
We got the chance to chat to Nicky Brown, former long-term partner of black footballer Laurie Cunningham all about that period, how she and Laurie were treated by the general public and more. Read on to find out what she had to say…
What can you tell us about the new documentary Whites Vs Blacks: How Football Changed A Nation, for those who may be unfamiliar with the subject and content?
In essence, this documentary is about overcoming the impact of racism in sport - the lack of positive black representation during that period and the desire for black players to be recognised for their skill and dedication, as a reaction to the prejudice that they experienced and that was prevalent in football culture at that time.
The documentary shows the audience that the game was about black footballers making a stand, not just for themselves as professionals seeking recognition, but as young black men demanding respect for all black people experiencing oppression through racist mentalities. It was about a reaction to inequality, where black players were seeing white players being given opportunities purely on the basis of race. It was a game that was conceived to challenge a racist culture within football - take us on and we will win. It was about value: The value that black players brought to the game and the value that was unjustly withheld from players within football's world.
Such a controversial idea peaked interest, brought in the crowds and in doing so raised benefit funds. This documentary describes how black footballers created an exciting new story within football's history - resulting in a powerful change within the face of football.
During the period in which the Blacks versus Whites football match was scheduled (May 16, 1979), you were dating black footballer Laurie Cunningham - what did he tell you of his experience on and off the pitch and being in the spotlight?
As long-term partners, we shared everything of each other's experiences, from Laurie's early days at Orient Football Club to his later career at Real Madrid. So, I was always aware of the challenges and victories Laurie experienced during his career. During that particular time, Laurie was at his most creative and dynamic. Laurie was always passionately ambitious for his team to win. His teammates respected his skill and such, we both saw a positive change in the way that the white players viewed their black teammates. And who wouldn't grow to love him? He was such a great guy! From the crowd, there was a dark element that would shout threatening, racist chants and throw missiles onto the pitch. This was no new thing to Laurie however, as racism was an everyday experience for black people living in Britain at that time. What surprised Laurie was why these so-called fans preferred a white team to a winning team, compared to the true fans, who embraced a talented new player.
Off-pitch, Laurie did receive racist abuse - hate mail, attempted violence and disrespect in public - until people realised who he was. But there was also a lot of great support and love shown to Laurie - people wanted autographs, photos, to talk to him; he was treated with admiration and respect, which Laurie enjoyed, as it confirmed to him that he was doing a great job for his team. Being in the public eye, Laurie saw a chance to make a positive change in the face of racism and inequality.
What personal experiences did you have, being part of an interracial relationship in provincial England?
Being in an interracial couple at that time, we experienced some situations that a same race couple wouldn't have. It incited a reaction from some people that suggested our relationship was wrong. We both received racist abuse - Laurie for being a black man who dared to love a white woman and me as a traitor to my race. I became 'worse' than black - I was 'filthy'. People would verbally abuse us in the street and we were spat at. People would try to physically threaten us and Laurie ended up getting into fights to defend both of us on more than one occasion. This only made us love each other more and my relationship with Laurie was a happy one - it never made us doubt our love for each other - I had some horrible experiences, but I didn't care what anyone else thought.
The documentary airs on the BBC as part of the Black and British TV season - how important do you think events like this on television are?
Crucial. The fight against racism in this country is still happening - ignorance and fear breed racism, so we need to continue to educate people in the hope that future generations don't experience the same things that we did. Kick it out!
How would you say the world has moved on when it comes to race and what problems do you think minorities still face?
We live in a richly multi-racial society and I think a lot of progress has come through music and sport. There are more proud Brits born of different races than ever before, so we have come a long way. But I think that more still needs to be done - inequality still exists in our society, particularly in minorities and until we all have the same opportunity to thrive in British culture, it is important that we continue to recognise racism as a disease that needs to be wiped out.
What kind of shift or change do you think needs to happen for everybody to treat one another as equals? Will there ever be a day when this happens?
As a society we need to recognise that we all have the same basic human feelings and needs, so therefore everyone should naturally have the same human rights, equality and opportunities. When that is achieved, not only in Britain but globally, then we may see a positive evolution - both socially and politically. When everyone is filled with right, love and fairness and not starved by loathing, fear and hatred, we will know that we have got it right. That's really what the majority of humans want even if they don't know it yet.
Away from the show, how will you be spending the rest of 2016?
I have a couple of wedding ceremonies to write - I perform bespoke humanitarian wedding ceremonies, which is always a pleasure. Then I will be shopping and making prezzies for a big family Christmas, which I can't wait for. I am looking forward to much socialising and also to getting the ball rolling, organising a one-day charity reggae festival in Cornwall (mid-year 2017) in aid of the refugees post Calais.
Whites Vs Blacks: How Football Changed A Nation will broadcast on November 27 as part of the Black and British season on the BBC.