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Social Justice

Doreen Lawrence: ‘I put my pain to the back of my mind when Stephen died’

Doreen Lawrence suffered a tragedy when her son Stephen was murdered, yet her activism has changed countless lives for the better

Doreen Lawrence, now Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, OBE was born Doreen Graham in Jamaica in 1952. At the age of nine, she emigrated to London. After leaving school, she became a bank worker and in 1972 married Neville Lawrence. Together they had three children, Stephen (in 1974), Stuart (1977) and Georgina (1982), and divorced in 1999.

Tragically, Stephen was murdered by a racist gang in 1993, and both Doreen and Neville challenged the Metropolitan Police investigation. In 1999, after years of campaigning, a wide-ranging judicial inquiry was established to investigate the circumstances of Stephen’s death. It concluded that the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist”, and that this was one of the primary causes of their failure to solve the case.

Lawrence continued to campaign for justice for her son as well as for other victims of racist crime, and founded the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust to promote a positive community legacy in her son’s name. She has worked to secure further reforms of the police service. In 2003 she was awarded the OBE for services to community relations, and was elevated to a peerage in 2013. She has received numerous other awards.

In her Letter To My Younger Self, Lawrence looks back on her life and the horror of the loss of her son and the subsequent fallout, which led to her becoming one of the UK’s most prominent campaigners.

I enjoyed school but looking back, I think as a Black girl in the late ’60s, although I was very good at maths, the teachers didn’t encourage me as they should have. I think they looked at us Black girls and thought we probably wouldn’t come to anything much. That factory work is what we’d move into rather than an office job. We were so young, we didn’t understand quite what was going on, so when we were all put into the lower classes we didn’t push for the opportunities the white students were getting. Looking back on it now, that’s something we should have done. And our parents just listened to whatever the teachers told them, rather than fighting for us.  

But I think in the long run, having that dynamic playing out all the time made me more determined about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go.My friends and I left school at 17 and, having been encouraged to look for factory work, we all went off and got jobs working in banks. I always knew my own mind and I knew what I wanted. And I suppose that determination came out even more later in my life. I think that’s the thing about me; if there’s something I know should happen and the rights of it, I will challenge you over it. I don’t like to be put down. I really don’t like that. 

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We were not a close family. My mother left me in Jamaica when I was quite young, so until I came here when I was nine I was brought up by my grandmother, who I was very close to. After she died I came to England, but because I’d been so young when my mother left it was like meeting her for the first time. And meeting my younger siblings, who were much, much younger than me. That was all very strange. As the eldest of four in our household, a lot of responsibility for my younger siblings fell on my shoulders. So I was always worrying about what my mother thought, making sure I didn’t get myself into trouble. I was always trying to do the right thing.

Doreen Lawrence 1999 with a photograph of her late son, Stephen
Doreen Lawrence 1999 with a photograph of her late son, Stephen. Photo: James Gillham/Shutterstock

I think if you told the young Doreen she’d become a well-known person that would be very scary for her. I’m not an extrovert, so it would be scary to know I’d walk down the street and everyone would recognise me. I remember when I was being inducted into becoming a Chancellor [she was Chancellor for De Montfort University in Leicester from 2016 to 2020], standing on the platform and listening to this accolade about all the things I’ve done, and thinking, who is that person they’re talking about? Because I did not recognise her at all. I know I’ve done things, but there’s no way I thought anything like this would ever happen.  

I think when Stephen died [her son was murdered aged 18 by a racist gang in 1993] I did as well as I could at the time. You can never prepare yourself for the shock of something like that. It’s not something you ever discuss; “if this was ever to happen”. I’ve seen many people go through the same thing as I’ve gone through, and it has destroyed them. When something this dreadful happens, you expect the authorities to be so outraged they’ll do everything they can to support you. When you realise it’s completely the opposite – well, we talk about fight or flight. My instinct was to fight. 

I definitely put [my own private pain] to the back of my mind when Stephen died. I don’t know why my instinct made me do that. But I felt I needed to, because my son didn’t have a voice any more, and I needed to be that voice. Stephen died in ’93, but it wasn’t until ’95 that I actually sought any support. Whether or not that’s when I realised I was beginning to fall apart I have no idea. But that’s how long it took me to look for any help. I felt if I’d looked for that support earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to do the things I needed to do for my son.  

It’s not like I was on adrenaline every day – there were days I didn’t get out of bed and there were days when I couldn’t cope. When you’re living through times like that you’re just stumbling from one thing to the other. But then something would happen that snapped me out of it and said no, you need to get up and do something. Because what happened was not right. You know, within the Black community, we suffer from this every day. Still the authorities – the police, the justice system, the courts – they behave as if we don’t have feelings, we should be treated in a way which degrades us. That’s what I’m beginning to get really angry about now. I should have had time to grieve properly for my son and support my other two children.   

Standing up to speak in front of lots of people, that’s one of my worst nightmares. I don’t like to be the centre of attention. I really don’t like it. When I talk to young people, I always say be yourself, be who you are. That’s all I ever tried to do for myself. I’m not naturally somebody who likes being in front of cameras but I think you really should try to be useful.  I wanted to help, to make a difference. So I forced myself to do it.

Doreen Lawrence at De Montfort University
2017: On Chancellor duties at De Montfort University graduation ceremony. Photo: Doreen Lawrence

The truth is, Stephen died, he was killed, and nobody really cared. A young black boy – as far as the police and a lot of other people were concerned, he must have been a drug dealer. He must have been doing something wrong. They never saw the child. But even if he had been doing something wrong, the mere fact that somebody took his life is what they should have been focusing on. He was none of those bad things but even if he had been, the police are not there to pass judgement, that is not their role. They’re supposed to investigate the crime. But they choose not to. I couldn’t sit back and allow that to continue without speaking up, because other other mothers’ sons are dying. And the authorities are still the same, ignorant to the pain these families are going through, like it’s not the same for us as it would be if any of their children died.  We’re not asking for anything special, just to be treated the same as everybody else.

Stephen enjoyed life. He made friends easily. He has this way of, when you speak to him, you can’t be angry with him for long. He has this character about him, he holds his head down and looks up at you at the same time. We could just be sitting around the dinner table talking about something and I may not agree with something he says, and he’ll just look at me in that way and I’ll just say, OK, fine. Then you’re laughing and chatting again.  

I didn’t realise how much he made a difference to others until he died, because you just see your son, a child, you don’t really see how other people view them. Nobody had a bad word to say about him. Everybody said things like, he helped me here when I started secondary school, he looked out for me. So this wasn’t just a mother thinking her child is great. Other people were telling me that.

Doreen Lawrence and Prince Charles
2022: With Diane- Louise Jordan and then-Prince Charles at the Commonwealth Diaspora ceremony. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/WPA Pool/Shutterstock

Like a lot of teenagers, up until the age of 14 I knew everything about Stephen. He told me every single thing that he and his friends were doing. He was somebody who liked to share. When he got older, not so much. And, as with all teenagers, there was a bit of shouting and stomping about. But he was already moving on from that to, “I’m going to the shops Mum, do you need anything?” In our church we talk about ‘the teenage years’ and the storms and the crying and all that stuff – those two or three years are just them growing. After that, eventually you’re friends again. Stephen and I had a short time of being good friends again. But not long enough.  

The thing that makes me proudest is knowing Stephen’s name means so much now. Things in his name have changed so much in law, and his name has such respect. And he deserved that, he was somebody who valued people, he valued life. And so, if his name is able to change things and bring respect for a lot of young people and help them achieve things, whatever they set their hearts on, that does make me proud.  

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If I could re-live one moment in my life it would be the birth of my granddaughter because I was there when she was born. That’s such a special moment. Not many grandparents are able to be there. My daughter phoned at six o’clock in the morning and I rushed to the hospital. And then to be able to hold my granddaughter just after she was born… I had a picture of that on my phone, but it was lost when I lost my phone. I wish I’d printed it out, but you don’t tend to print out photos now do you? And you can lose memories. But I remember that day as if it was yesterday. And now she’s old enough to go off to university. 

After Stephen died I found a thing he’d written where he said he knew I wanted to have a daughter first, rather than having a son. That was so far from the truth. I thought I had told him that having a son first was what I’d wanted. When I read his note, it made me wish we’d had more conversations. Sometimes you think you’ll say things later, but in the moment you’re just living your busy life and it’s only afterwards you realise there were things you should have said but you didn’t. I always say we need to value our children a lot more. Looking back, I took him for granted, thinking he’d always be here. But he’s not. 

Doreen Lawrence’s course, Finding The Inner Strength, is available on BBC Maestro. 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

The new book Letter to My Younger Self: Inspirational Women is out now, you can order it here.

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