R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
April 24, 2020

“POWER” was the slogan –“BLACK POWER!” – The 1970 Black Power revolt in Trinidad and Tobago

Introduction: On April 21, 1970, Dr. Eric Williams, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, faced with mounting social and political unrest, responded by declaring a State of Emergency. Three months of radical protest and demonstrations had shaken the foundations of the old order and he chose repression as a solution. Leaders of the protest movement, radical “Black Power” advocates and militant trade union leaders, were arrested and jailed and the country put under “lockdown” by the security forces.

However young officers within the armed forces were themselves touched by the series of events. Having their own grouses within the Army, they vowed not to be used to “shoot and kill” their “black brothers and sisters”. That same day, April 21, they too rose up in revolt.

Racism, Injustice and poverty

I was a young teacher at the time searching for answers to the gnawing social and economic questions that life had posed. Why was there so much injustice in the world? Why were black people seemingly condemned to a life of poverty, oppression, a lack of identity and all the negatives which go with this state of being?

We had no internet in those days, no ready access to the international media, save for BBC news, and the local media in all the Caribbean islands were generally controlled by the privileged classes and reflected their conservative views of the state of being. That in itself spurred a search for information, for alternative viewpoints.

It was the heyday of the brutal war in Vietnam. Each morning the BBC news would begin with an update’: “American forces today killed 200/300 Vietcong for the loss of only 20 soldiers”. So why were they not winning the war? That was the unanswered question in heads like mine. It was also the era of the massive civil rights marches in the USA with dogs being set on black people and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

This search for justice, for black identity, inspired what became to be known as the “Black Power Movement”, in the USA. The ideas were to find fertile ground in the Caribbean. In 1970, most of the Caribbean islands were still under colonial rule and among those which had won independence, conservative and racist ideas and practices still held sway.

It was a time when the lightness of your skin determined your chances of economic and social mobility, when the phrase “black and ugly” still held sway, when even churches had pews in the front for whites and the privileged classes, when we were ashamed of our “pickee hair” and even of ourselves.

Black Power was to challenge and change all of that. The suppression of black protests in the USA did not go unnoticed and when at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, two Black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised black gloved fists on the podium during the playing of the American national anthem, the Black Power salute gained immediate international recognition.

The restless youth of the Caribbean sat up and took notice. That same month, October, when the Black Power salute gained worldwide notice, in fact on that very day, October 16, students and young people in Jamaica staged protests against the action of the right-wing Jamaica Labour Party government in banning UWI lecturer Dr Walter Rodney from that country and in having him dismissed from his teaching post. Our own Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, then a UWI student himself, played an active role in the mobilisation. Rodney’s classic work, “The Grounding with my brothers” was to become almost a Biblical text for young disenfranchised youth throughout the Caribbean.

The social explosion continued. In Montreal, our own late Alfie Roberts, the first Vincentian Test cricketer, denied opportunities in the region, including on the West Indies team, had been playing an active role in the black community in Montreal, Canada. He was one of the leaders of a protest movement against racism at Sir George William University in Canada in February 1969.

The conflagration was to come nearer home. One year later, in Trinidad, radical students led by Makandaal Daaga (then Geddes Granger) and Khafra Kambon (then Dave Darbeau), staged protests on the anniversary of the treatment of the Sir George William University students. But it was not just racism in Canada, racism, unemployment and alienation right at home in T&T was in the forefront too.

The protesters not only mobilised huge crowds, but awakened the consciousness of black youth. They even took their protests to the Catholic cathedral in Port of Spain, a classic symbol of white racist rule. The leaders were arrested and charged, but it only made matters worse for the ruling elite.

The demands broadened beyond anti-racism to calls for nationalisation of foreign-owned sections of the economy (oil and gas), employment and educational opportunities. This was the backdrop to the April events and all that was to happen later.


Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.