Len Johnson… fighter: Story of Salford boxer-turned civil rights activist to premiere at Manchester Fringe Festival

A play about a formidable Manchester boxer denied the chance to compete for official British titles because of his race is to premiere in Salford.

Len Johnson – Fighter is the story of the man many consider to be Britain’s best middleweight of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Salford born Len won both the northern area light heavyweight title and the British Empire middleweight title.

But he was banned from challenging for any of the official British titles because of the colour of his skin.

At the time of Len’s heyday many boxing matches were financed and organised by Lord Lonsdale, founder member and president of the National Sporting Club.

An article he wrote for Empire News explains how the legality of boxing was made conditional on having no ‘inter-coloured contests’, following talks with Winston Churchill at the Home Office.

Expressing his disappointment with the decision Lord Lonsdale wrote: “I am very sorry, because he is a very fine fellow, a really nice man with a splendid personality and a splendid boxer. But there it is.”

The article can be found among memorabilia featured at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.

Len was taught to box by his father, a former sailor from Sierra Leone, and like many fighters of the day he honed his skills at the travelling boxing booth.

He was revered for his ‘educated left hand and slippery defence’ but, frustrated at being denied the chance to compete for the British champion’s belt, retired from the ring in 1933.

However, he continued to tour the country with his booth and went on to work for the Civil Defence Corps during the Second World War.

The discrimination he suffered as a sportsman had a radicalising effect on Len, and he spent the remainder of his life challenging prejudice and injustice.

He joined the Communist Party and stood as their candidate for Moss Side East six times between 1947 and 1962.

In 1945 he helped organise the Pan-African Conference in Manchester which led to him becoming great friends with the singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson.

Five years later he organised Britain’s ‘Let Robeson Sing’ campaign on his friend’s behalf. The singer’s passport had been revoked by the US State Department on the grounds that his right to travel was against American interests.

And in the late 1940s he formed the ‘New International Society’ with his comrades Wilf Charles and Syd Booth.

This served as both a social club and an organisation that campaigned against racial discrimination in the USA, South Africa and British colonies.

The role of Len in Fighter is played by Jarreau Benjamin, who won rave reviews for his role in Jess Lee’s Diabetic Penguins at last year’s Greater Manchester Fringe.

Starring alongside him will be Katie McArdle who has previously appeared in No Soft Option and Thrasher.

The team behind Fighter have a proven pedigree, being responsible for Meanwhile at the 2013 Greater Manchester Fringe Festival.

The play, focusing on a girls’ football team in 1980s Belfast, garnered five-star reviews and transferred to sell-out shows at Bolton Octagon.

Festival patron, Tim Firth, who wrote the screenplay for Calendar Girls, said: “The fringe is the most important area of any art form because it is the arena in which risks are taken and challenge set.

“Any festival without a fringe is basically rootless because ultimately it is the fringe which will drive the centre.”

Len Johnson – Fighter, July 15-18, 7.30pm, King’s Arms, Salford. Tickets £8 (£6 concessions)

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