Trevor Phillips on why fighter pilot and author E.R. Braithwaite is his Black History Month hero

WE are celebrating the start of Black History Month this week by asking leading figures to tell us about their own heroes from the past.

The annual event celebrates the contributions and achievements of black figures in British life, though they might not be widely known.

Here, writer and broadcaster Trevor Phillips, 66, the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, chooses E.R. Braithwaite, World War Two fighter-pilot, teacher and novelist.

'THIS month we celebrate great athletes, actors, artists and activists.

But this moment should also remind us that black people are great intellectuals, scientists, diplomats — and warriors.

My hero Ted (E.R.) Braithwaite — author of To Sir, With Love, the most successful novel ever about the black British experience — was all of these things and more.

Born in what was then British Guiana, in 1912, he attended the colony’s top school, Queen’s College, where I later studied.

Like dozens of QC boys, he was already a hero of World War Two as an RAF pilot — and that could not have been easy when it was normal for a flyer to call his black Labrador “N****r”.

Ted later studied physics at Cambridge and gained a doctorate. In those days, there was no chance someone of his colour would get a job matching his qualifications, so he turned to teaching. Semi-autobiographical, To Sir, With Love — about his time teaching in London’s post-war slums — changed attitudes here and in the US. A 1967 film version had Sidney Poitier as Braithwaite — educated, well-spoken and heroic. He took a class of roughnecks and showed them opera, theatre and Harlem Globetrotters basketball.

As others prophesied race riots and rivers of blood, Ted made the case for racial integration — and made it possible for black Britons to hold their heads high. Today, our country is the best place in Europe to live if you are not white. Ted’s vision triumphed.

Back then, Hollywood moguls said a film starring a black man would never rate. Wrong. Poitier, co-starring with Lulu, took the lead role for a paltry £23,000, plus ten per cent of box office. The film was a hit and he made over £30million in today’s money. Lulu’s version of the title song was a chart hit.

The film inspired British sitcom Please Sir!, that made a star of John Alderton — and when Barack Obama left the White House in 2017, the American TV show Saturday Night Live closed its tribute to the first black President with a rendition of To Sir, With Love.

Ted was later a UN diplomat, academic at US universities and fiercely competitive tennis player.

He died, aged 104, in 2016 — a man who changed our way of thinking, defied the odds and did all that black men were not meant to be able to do. He is an inspiration for every child of every race who when told, “You can’t do that” replies with Ted’s favourite phrase: “Why not?”'

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