Decades apart, lives cut short by hate offer same lessons

By Gillian Walnes, January 5, 2012
Follow The JC on Twitter

In January 1997, I had the privilege, as executive director of the Anne Frank Trust, of introducing Doreen Lawrence to Tony Blair, just a few months before the landslide that would sweep a Labour Government to power. At that time, the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence was a four-year-old unsolved crime case, one that was hardly mentioned in the press and had long moved on from being discussed over dinner tables.

The occasion of the meeting between Blair and Lawrence was the launch of a new Anne Frank travelling exhibition, called A History for Today, at Southwark Cathedral. As owners of the new exhibition, we had chosen to include a panel about Stephen, to show that hatred could destroy another talented teenager's life, not in 1940s Holland, but just a few years earlier right here on the streets of London.

In the days before we knew how to scan and email photos, Doreen Lawrence had most generously entrusted us with a collection of precious-beyond-words, original photographs of Stephen as a baby, toddler, child and teenager. We photographed his schools certificates, the t-shirt he wore when he ran a marathon, and his sketches of buildings (like Anne Frank's ambition to be a published writer, Stephen already knew he wanted to be an architect). The panels showed the senseless cruelty of a life of promise that was cut short.

The morning at Southwark Cathedral was poignant and memorable, and proved to be significant for our country. I was told a few years later by Lord Boateng, then Home Office minister, that Blair had been so impressed and moved by Doreen's description of Stephen's life and death that he vowed then and there that, should he become prime minister, he would commission a proper inquiry into the handling of Stephen's murder. He also vowed on that morning to introduce a UK-wide commemoration day to remember the enormity of the Holocaust. And so we saw the birth of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and Holocaust Memorial Day.

Like Anne, Stephen knew what he wanted to be

It is, of course, sad that it has taken so long for the conviction of murderers Gary Dobson and David Norris to come. But advances in science march on, and in the same way that those of us who have lost loved ones to cancer come to face the knowledge that, had they lived longer, their disease may have been successfully treated, the Lawrence family will understand that forensics have come on enormously to allow cold cases to be reopened.

The Macpherson inquiry, its recommendations and changes show how far we have come in this country since the early 1990s. There is still prejudice suffered by those who are visibly different, whether they are of black skin or wear Chasidic dress, or whether they are Jewish students on campus described in derogatory terms as "Zionists". But, while never comparing the two events, we are proud to have highlighted the links between a Jewish child victim of the Holocaust and contemporary murderous hatred. The reflective comments made by children at our exhibitions can attest to the power of making those connections and raising awareness of the senseless killing of a schoolboy.

As we cheer around the country at the news of justice having at last been done, I recall two poignant instances. Doreen was at Durham Cathedral, and was quietly contemplating one of Stephen's photographs featured in the exhibition. It was a typical school photo; Stephen grinning widely at the camera, with a wide gap between his front teeth.

As I put my hand on her shoulder Doreen looked at me and said: "Do you know, I told him off about that photo when he brought it home from school. I told him he shouldn't have smiled with such a big gap." How that loving mother must have regretted those words.

A couple of years later, I was with Neville Lawrence, Stephen's heartbroken father, appearing on Esther Rantzen's talk show to discuss fathers of murdered children, such as he and Otto Frank, who chose to educate other young people to continue their children's legacy.

Neville told me that Stephen had actually been one-eighth Jewish as Neville's own grandmother had been a white German Jewess who had emigrated to Jamaica.

Bigotry is bonkers. We are all connected. And, like Neville, like Doreen, and quite possibly even like the parents of murderers, we all have the same concerns and hopes for our children.

Gillian Walnes MBE is the co-founder and executive director of the Anne Frank Trust UK

    Last updated: 11:43am, January 5 2012