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Commentary: Three heroes of civic leadership and Caribbean independence
Published on July 10, 2017 Email To Friend    Print Version

From left: Eric Williams, Norman Manley, Grantley Adams

By Gabriel J. Christian

The year 2012 marked the advent of 50 years of the independence of the British West Indies; both Jamaica and Trinidad having gained places as independence from Britain on August 6, 1962 and August 31, 1962, respectively.

Much pulsating reggae and calypso rhythms were heard; jerk chicken and curry roti graced many a pot, with plentiful Appleton or Old Oak rums, with Red Stripe or Carib beers to wash all down. Caribbean people are known to party and much feting accompanied those two dates.

Gabriel J. Christian, Esq. is a Maryland trial lawyer; Judicial Commissioner of the Maryland Court of Appeals, and President Pro Tem of the Dominica Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was the President of the Caribbean Students Association at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, DC (1984-1986). In June 2012, he was appointed a member of the State of Maryland Caribbean Commission by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.
Regrettably, aside from lofty calls to national service by our leadership, too many Caribbean people at home and abroad, view independence as a time for feting. How many of us – individually or collectively – will spend a moment to sit in sober deliberation to dissect and/or discuss the quality of our civic duty.

How many of us will ask: What am I doing to better my country or our region?

Citizenship does not simply mean having a passport, or where one was born. It is often the case that persons not born in the Caribbean care more about our affairs than those born there.

Citizenship is more than a flag of one of our many islands held aloft at Labour Day Carnival Parade in Brooklyn, the Miami Caribbean Carnival, Caribana in Canada or the Notting Hill Carnival… Citizenship therefore means, in a deeper sense, whether one is committed to civic duty. And what is civic duty? In the simplest form:

Civic duty is the unselfish devotion to improvement in all spheres of the community in which one resides. Such civic responsibilities are exhibited by commitment to the best interest of public service and building up the nation. While governments often call upon individuals or groups to fulfill civic duties as a responsibility to the betterment or improvement of the community, civic duty is best exemplified by the efforts one voluntarily assumes in nation building.

What are the keywords here? They are: commitment; volunteerism; best interest of public service; unselfish devotion; nation building. How many of us are committed to civic duty as defined above?

At this time, I reflect on the lives of three phenomenal Caribbean leaders: Norman Washington Manley, of Jamaica; Dr Eric Williams, prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago; and Sir Grantley Adams of Barbados, prime minister of the British West Indian Federation.

These men were civic leaders who gave their lives serving their communities, countries and our region. They were also regionalists, in that they believed in one Caribbean federated state. With wisdom and commitment they guided the Caribbean through the days of the British West Indian Federation (1957-1962) and gave their lives to service in the public interest.

Sadly, too few West Indians know of these great men and/or their contributions to civic leadership in our region.

Norman Manley ( 4 July 1893 – 2 September 1969 ) was bona fide military hero, having won a Military Medal for bravery while serving in the Royal Artillery during World War I; having interrupted his studies at Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

Graduating with a first class honours degree in law, he gave much to the uplift of the ordinary Jamaican worker and farmer, in particular during the 1938 labour rebellion that swept the island. He was the leading force behind the founding of the social democratic People’s National Party and the National Workers Union of Jamaica.

An athlete of note, he was an avid promoter of Jamaica’s athleticism via the Boys Championships athletic meet at which he often refereed. He was instrumental in the formation of Jamaica’s Olympic Committee in 1948, and directed the building of that island’s national stadium.

It is fair to say that the origins of Jamaica’s success in athletics at the world level owe some to his leadership and sense of civic duty. He was also an advocate for universal adult suffrage and was chief minister – later premier – of Jamaica from 1955 through 1962 when he gave way to Alexander Bustamante.

Bustamante had argued against the federation. He told Jamaicans that the federation would have been a drag on their fortunes, and he played to inter-island prejudices, some of which are – regrettably – still with us today. He encouraged Jamaicans to vote against the federation of the British West Indies.

Norman Manley, a man of towering intellect, did not have the persuasive powers of Bustamante – especially among the rural folk. As a result the pro-federation People’s National Party of Jamaica went down to defeat.

Dr Eric Williams (25 September 1911 – 29 March 198) was a scholar of unparalleled presence and vision among the world leaders of the post-World War II era. He had taken a PhD from Oxford; graduating with honours.

His book “Capitalism and Slavery” is still considered a classic of Western political economy in its explanation of the economic underpinning that slavery gave to the birth of the British Industrial Revolution. His work was also a critique of the supposedly humanitarian impulse behind the abolition of slavery.

A distinguished Howard University Professor; he was a Caribbean representative on the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission that crafted policy for the region during World War II. In that position he advocated for better living conditions and an expansion of democracy for all West Indians – not just those from his home island.

In 1943, Dr Williams organized a conference at Howard University in Washington, DC, on “The Economic Future of the Caribbean.” Speakers of the conference included advocates for the independence of Puerto Rico, leaders of the pro-democracy movements of the Caribbean, American scholars, diplomats and the top brass of the British and American sections of the newly formed Anglo-American Caribbean Commission.

In the 1950s he returned to Trinidad to found the Peoples National Movement to agitate for self government and the independence of the region. Dr Williams pursued a vigorous political education of the public on the issue of national independence via his speeches and dialogue with his people at Port of Spain’s Woodford Square.

Many have since come to regard Dr Williams’ efforts at that location to have turned it into a university for the cause of self determination; the so-called “University of Woodford Square.” When Jamaicans voted to break away from the federation and go into independence alone, Dr Williams likewise took Trinidad and Tobago into independence.

The prime minister of the Federation was Sir Grantley Adams (28 April 1898 – 28 November 1971). A Barbadian, and an Oxford trained lawyer, he had distinguished himself in providing legal services to those arrested in the 1930s labour unrest on Barbados.

He was considered a statesman of much grace, whose fervent belief in one federated British West Indies was not enough to keep the two major British West Indian territories – Jamaica and Trinidad – united in common purpose. He exhibited much civic duty in serving his island community, and promoting the cause of Caribbean integration.

Those early West Indian leaders led lives of thrift, grace and showed much statesmanship. The mansions they built resided in their quality of service; nor were there questions about their rapid acquisition of wealth. They were men who believed in the ethic of civic duty and social responsibility. They brought West Indians together across the often harsh divides of class, colour and/or ethnicity and made our islands better places in which to live. They were Pan-Caribbean nationalists, who sought a great functional unity for our people.

They ran clean governments, and none were said to have profited at the expense of the public purse or accumulated wealth in ways unexplained and/or unrelated to their salaries. Sadly, their stellar lives of service to their communities, countries and the West Indies are seldom recalled these days.

They gave of themselves unselfishly. How many of our current crop of leaders can say that they follow in the spirit of those men?

Leaders set the tone for a people. The very culture of a nation, in governance, amity, efficiency, purpose, and dynamism is set by those who serve at the highest level, and at the base. And where our leaders are errant, the citizenry take note and follow in their paths. There is a direct co-relationship between errant leadership and escalating crime across the former British West Indies.

Born in 1961, my early days were still warmed by the embers of the federation and my parents often spoke in regretful tones of the missed opportunity. My father, Wendell M. Christian, having served with other West Indians in the British Army’s South Caribbean Forces during World War II knew the importance of teamwork among West Indians from different islands.

His officers and fellow soldiers came from Jamaica in the north, Barbados to the east and Guyana to the south. So schooled, he believed in the idea of West Indian federation. One of his army colleagues was an assistant to the West Indian Federation’s Governor General, Lord Hailes.

Wendell Christian was in Trinidad, at Piarco Airport doing fire fighting for the proposed British West Indian Federation’s Fire Service, when the split-up and collapse of the federation took place. He had been among those who listened to Dr Williams at Woodford Square, and recalled Williams’ famous remark when Jamaica pulled out of the federation: one from ten leaves zero (there were ten islands in the federation).

As one who served as president of the Caribbean Students Association at the University of the District of Columbia (1984-1986) I respect what we can achieve when we pursue civic duty and unity among our people.

However, today many of our people avoid joining organizations or stray from the path of excellence favoured by our early leaders. Their leadership cultivated a distinctive and noble brand of excellence in governance for our nations which is now slipping.

It is now a sad reality we must confront, that too many young West Indians follow lives of crime and get deported from the United States. It is also true that some of our leaders have deviated from that legacy and now find themselves involved in corrupt activities that have brought them, and their office, into disrepute.

While we have to hold our leaders to high standard, the ordinary citizen cannot escape blame for the state of our Caribbean civilization, where rot sets in. Every Caribbean man, woman and child has a duty to cultivate themselves in the best way and so pursue high ideals.

To constantly innovate, be industrious and set an example in duty to one’s community and nation by volunteerism, beneficial teamwork and serving others. Unless that is done, then we shall continue to get the leaders we deserve.

It is observed that:

• Too many West Indians will spend $100 on dance but not pay $10 in annual dues to join a civic organization;

• Too many West Indians place allegiance to political party over commitment to what is best for the country;

• An epidemic of drug use and crime threatens to undermine the efforts to encourage investment in our region;

• Legendary local organizations such as the Social League, Parent Teacher Associations (PTA), Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and Cadets are not being supported by the wider society in the manner they should;

• Too few people cared to volunteer anymore – or if they showed up for community service they want to be paid in cash or kind.

Be it a PTA, youth group, student organization, or professional association, each of us must find a way to contribute to the general welfare of the community in which we live. Where money is tight, we can volunteer to attend a career day at a school; we can mentor a student or adopt a young man or woman as an apprentice at our shop or farm; or we can mentor them inside our professional practice.

It must become normative of our society that we commit ourselves to a civic organization and pay our dues.

Too many in our society have become calloused in their inattention to our national ills and look at the crumbling edifice of our communities and excuse themselves from any commitment to community or country, over and beyond any selfish interest.

Or if witnessing an act of vandalism against a school or other government or private property, some are heard to say: “That’s not my problem.” Such an attitude is not good enough; it just will not do. We must team up for the good of the community in which we live; we can all join hands to build the countries we claim to love.

In Prince Georges County, Maryland, the Bar Association encourages such civic duty, where interns are hired in the summer and lawyers give free clinics to the indigent or lecture students in classroom settings. Shall we do the same in our Caribbean? I know we can do it if we try.

Local doctors can offer to take the blood pressure of shoppers at the market on Saturday or visit schools and do volunteer clinics there. Local dentists can volunteer a day to visit a school and do teeth exams there.

A business person can mentor students in his neighbourhood school, and a civil servant can be diligent in management of the people’s business. These are simple steps one can take; however, they are building blocks to a better Caribbean. From the highest rungs of society to the lowest, we can all play a useful part and so build the beloved community.

No one can do such nation building better than those who would be immediately benefited by the progress made.

In the immediate post-slavery era community self help – or Koudmen – was the glue that held our communities together. We need to re-ignite that civic spirit by joining civic organizations, paying our dues and sharing our time and resources in building up our community.

If we are to realize the true benefits of Caribbean independence, now is the time to move beyond mere criticism to substantive contribution. Nature abhors a vacuum. Where our fragile states implode because our people are inattentive to the needs of our various communities, then others more powerful will move in.

Absent such civic duty which feeds patriotic spirit, we shall lose our independence as a people. Now is the time that all who professes to love the Caribbean should join hands and commit to civic duty.
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