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John Lewis, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Caribbean Diaspora

(18 July 2020) —There is a lot I could say about John Lewis, and volumes have already been written, and will be written, about his role as a civil rights icon and warrior. His life-long struggle for freedom from oppression, from his early years as a young man in the civil rights movement, up until his death as a US congressman, to effect changes in policies in the United States that perpetuate unequal treatment of Black people and people of color, and maltreatment and neglect of the disenfranchised and marginalized in American society . John Lewis’s name is already enshrined in the history, not only of America, but of mankind generally; and his passing once again draws attention to his important role in the history of the Civil Rights Movement in America and the unfinished struggle for freedom, justice and equality.

Hon John Lewis

Congressman Lewis’ passing is a time for us to reflect on where America was and where it is today. It is a time to have a vision of, and works for a better future. His passing comes within weeks of the global protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and thousands of voices raised and fists clenched proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. The refrain we heard from protesters were in unison, all on the side of justice and equality, the same issues for which Lewis has fought so long. I want to take time to reflect on the role members of the Caribbean Diaspora have played in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and hence in the life of John Lewis. But, first, let me put this in context of my own edification on the Civil Rights Movement in America.

John Lewis receives Medal of Freedom by  President Barack Obama in 2011

When John Lewis as a young man was sitting at lunch counters forcing integration across the US south, I was a high school student in Jamaica. When John Lewis’ head was being bashed in by racist policemen and state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, I was enjoying the freedom of integration and attending a high school of choice by scholarship, or could have attended were my parents able to afford the fees.  There was no racial impediment attending a school of choice for me, or any other Jamaican child at that time in our history.  There was no fear or need for law enforcement protection against white angry racist mobs trying to prevent us from attending the school of our choice. I like most Jamaicans were quite oblivious to the dangerous struggle for freedom and equality in America. When John Lewis, on August 28, 1963, stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial along with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders, there were several members of the Caribbean Diaspora standing with him. As King, Lewis and others addressed the large crowd gathered on the National Mall, during that 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I was in my final year in high school back in Jamaica. I knew of King, and I had heard a little of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955-1956, and the civil rights movement in general while still in Jamaica, but I knew very little, if anything, of John Lewis at that time.

Rosa Parks sitting at the front of the bus

Less than five years after the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, I arrived in Washington DC in early September 1968 to attend Howard University. My arrival in the US capital was some six months after King’s assassination and the subsequent riots which wracked the US, including the destruction of a swathe of Washington DC, particularly in black neighborhoods that were burnt to the ground. The charred remains of the buildings were still quite visible. It didn’t take me long to realize the value of men like John Lewis and his fellow travelers in the civil rights movement. The Howard University campus was alive with the Black Power movement and on many Friday afternoons I stood in the middle of campus, at first out of curiosity, and listened to the speeches of black power advocates from the steps of Douglas Hall. Through my curiosity I learnt a lot from those speeches, as much as I learnt from the Social Science texts I read during my first semester. It wasn’t very long before I started visiting the national monuments in Washington. Interestingly, the first time I visited the Lincoln Memorial and looked out on the National Mall seeing the US Congress at the far end, my thoughts were not about Lincoln freeing the slaves, but about the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I could only envision the large crowd John Lewis stood before with King and others. It must have been an awesome experience for the still young Lewis. The fact that Lincoln freed the slaves did cross my mind, but the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, two seminal pieces of legislation with which I had now become familiar, were paramount in my thoughts as I looked down the Mall at the US Congress. I thought about the advocacy and the struggles of the non-violence advocacy of the freedom fighters; men such as John Lewis, and the changes they brought about in the lives of Black people in the United States. I thought about the awakening of oppressed peoples of color around the world because of the struggles of the American Civil Rights Movement. I could walk the streets of the nation’s capital freely because of the struggles of those civil rights leaders. I could eat in any restaurant, which I couldn’t afford as a student, but I could. Another point of interest for me was my thoughts and appreciation while on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, not for the man on whose monument I was standing, but for the much maligned former president Lyndon Johnson who went all-in on both those pieces of seminal civil rights legislation in the 1960’s. Having arrived in the middle of the Vietnam War protests, I didn’t think of Johnson’s abject failure in prosecuting the War, but on what he accomplished in advancing civil rights in America. Looking back over the years at photographs and literature of the civil rights movement, I have seen images and read of the mostly behind the scenes financial and other valuable support given to the movement by people of Caribbean heritage. I realized how much we were, and must remain, a part of the struggle for freedom and justice. I’m even more convinced now more than ever, we can change the world. We can be workers in the struggle for freedom, justice, and peace; and advocates for human security for all.

Cleveland Robinson (R) and Bayard Rustin (L) – organizers of the 1963 March on Washington

I recall names of the Caribbean Diaspora such as Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Cleveland Robinson, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Ivanhoe Donaldson, and many others. I am reminded of the Rt. Hon. Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s role in the early part of the 20th century in awakening pride in Black people in the US and around the world, and whose philosophy influenced Dr. King and others. I am reminded of W. E. B. Du Bois whose intellectual writings, such as The Souls of Black Folks – a must read for all of us in the 1960’s,  contributed to arousing the consciousness of other Black scholars and intellectuals to the plight of Black people in America. He was one of the founders of the NAACP which for decades have been in the forefront of the fight for civil rights. I was pleased to visit Du Bois’ memorial in Accra, Ghana, during my tenure at the United Nations.

Claude McKay

I recall the role of author and poet Claude McKay, an iconic member of the Harlem Renaissance, and author of one of my favorite books, A Long Way from Home; and his poems, including, “If We Must Die”. McKay’s writings inspired thousands in the struggle of black men and women striving for freedom, justice and equality. In one of McKay’s most impactful  poems, he implores us to resist the oppressors with these words: “If we must die – let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursed lot. If we must die – oh, let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed in vain; Then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!” And, I am reminded of Dr. Kenneth Clarke, renowned sociologist, whose seminal work prepared Thurgood Marshall to present the case for equity in education in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Clarke’s testimonies in a number of civil rights cases helped to convince the judiciary of the negative social impact of segregation. Described as a psychologist, educator, and social activist, Clarke’s famous “doll study” played an important role in convincing the Justices of the US Supreme Court to end segregation of public schools in America.

Sydney Poitier and Harry Belafonte in the Civil Rights Movement

Many other members of the Caribbean Diaspora played crucially important roles in the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Harry Belafonte comes readily to mind. Having joined the civil rights movement in the 1950’s, Belafonte was one of MLK’s closest friends and confidant. He organized demonstrations, raised money for the movement, and personally bankrolled the movement; and he raised funds to bail King and other civil rights activists from southern jails. Belafonte was joined by the iconic actor, Sydney Poitier in providing significant financial support to the civil rights movement. There is one anecdote of Belafonte and Poitier delivering a bag in 1964 stuffed with $75,000 to Freedom Summer volunteers in the south. During the trip they were chased and shot at by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Both Belafonte and Poitier also helped organize and finance the 1963 March on Washington.

Bayard Rustin (L) and Cleveland Robinson (R)

Another major role player from the Caribbean diaspora, Cleveland Robinson, a labor union organizer, served as Chairman of the Administrative Committee for the 1963 March on Washington. There were other several very well-known members of the Caribbean diaspora, including Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. But there were less heralded members of the diaspora, such as Ivanhoe Donaldson who, as a student, became involved while pursuing an engineering degree at Michigan State University East Lansing. Responding to a call by civil rights leaders for food relief for the Black people of the Mississippi Delta, Donaldson and his roommate organized a food drive and drove a truck loaded with food and over-the-counter medical supplies from Louisville, Kentucky to the Delta. He and his room-mate were arrested while enroute and thrown into jail for transporting drugs – aspirins and vitamins. An astute political organizer and strategist, Donaldson successfully led the campaigns of Julian Bond (of Georgia, for the US Congress in 1965); Richard Hatcher (Gary, Indiana, for Mayor in 1967); and Marion Barry (Washington DC, for Mayor in 1979). Not unexpectedly, Barry was the first US politician to duly recognize the Caribbean community in the nation’s capital with a declaration of Caribbean Day in the 1980’s. This seminal time in Caribbean Diaspora history in the nation’s capital was celebrated with the staging of the first Caribbean parade in Washington DC, starting on Pennsylvania Ave to the DC waterfront at 7th St. SW.

MLK, Jr., addresses crowd at Jamaica’s National Stadium in 1965

Let me conclude with the impact Jamaica had on Rev. King, and his affinity for Jamaica. When he was weary from the struggles of the civil rights movement and needed to refresh his spirit, he found solace in Jamaica. When he wanted to put his thoughts into words and on paper, he spent time in Jamaica where some of his most important writings were penned. According to former US ambassador to the UN, Andrew Young, a former aide and close King confidant, the civil rights leader was a frequent visitor to Jamaica where he wrote most of his books, including Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community? (Time spent in Jamaica on this book: Jan-Feb 1967). King notably said, “In Jamaica I feel like a human being.“ The story of the Caribbean diaspora and the civil rights movement has not yet been written, and available in one place, at least as far as I know. Perhaps, this is a start of more to come. There are many members of the Caribbean Diaspora who are currently contributing in some ways to the struggle for freedom, equality and justice. A number are serving in public offices across the United States, in local elected offices, on the judiciary, in the US Congress, and in the US armed services, including in leadership posts. Outside of government, members the Caribbean Diaspora since the US Civil War and the founding of the nation have been making significant contributions to all facets of US civic and political life, in the professions and the private sector, and in every other facet of American life. The struggles for freedom and justice seem even more urgent now than ever and continued Caribbean Diaspora engagement is an imperative. Please follow me on Facebook and Twitter © 2020 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post
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