Last week when I began on this theme, I did not hesitate to ask the question, what have been the rewards for the struggle and hardships endured over the 50 years since I I made that commitment?
I outlined the context in which the small group of young men, all under 25 years of age, formed this organisation called BLAC.
For a reminder it was a time when Independence had not yet been achieved, when the plantation economy dominated, when the indigenous people, derisively referred to as “Caribs” were exploited in many different ways, and the old two-party political system ruled the roost. Sir James Mitchell had just broken ranks with the Labour party but could only find political space as an independent.
Already two groups of young people had taken up the challenge, the Young Socialist Group (YSG) and the black nationalist OBCA.
Some of the co-founders of BLAC had themselves left OBCA, more on grounds of leadership style than ideological differences.
Having had good relations with most of them, and given their commitment to continue “the struggle”, and my own desire to become involved in an organized way, we soon agreed to set up a new organisation. My entry into organized struggle set a pattern for the future for I was always fortunate to be a founder-member of those political organisations in which I functioned; I never applied to join any political outfit.
But, back to the main agenda and, how did BLAC address itself to the challenges outlined in the context? Colonial rule had brought with it not only poverty and underdevelopment, it created a legacy of inferiority and a lack of pride of Black and Indigenous people in themselves, an abysmal lack of knowledge about our history.
The founding principles of BLAC, called “What We Stand For”, made it plain that we were serious about our mission. Thus, the statement set out a series of DEMANDS, among them:
- The Universal liberation of the Black race.
- The sole power to govern ourselves (Independence).
- The return of our lands owned then largely by the British crown and the plantocracy.
- Decent housing, efficient medical care and full employment for our people.
- A radical change in the educational system and “the total destruction” of the capitalist system.
Having set out these ambitious demands, how did we address them? What benefits have accrued to our people as a result of the work of BLAC and its sister-organisations and what benefits have accrued to our country in consequence?
First and foremost, there were formidable obstacles to be overcome. Though more and more of our young people were becoming attracted to progressive ideas and black nationalist ideology, Black Power was still a “dirty name” in the Caribbean. Many older folk regarded Black Power advocates as useless, weed-smoking elements and often warned their children not to associate with us.
In such an atmosphere it was easy to spread all kinds of lies, not just about BLAC, OBCA and YSG, but also about our progressive intellectuals who had returned from university brimming with fire. Leaders of the Forum were wickedly accused of burning Bibles and all sorts of non-existent crimes.
Moreover, we lacked the resources and the political skill to counter the propaganda. It was worse when a mere year after our formation, one of the prominent figures in BLAC, Junior ‘Spirit’ Cottle was accused, arrested, tried and sentenced to death for the murder of Attorney General Cecil Rawle. Overnight we all became potential murderers, people to be ostracised from the society.
In spite of this we survived, mounting a regional and international campaign on Cottle’s behalf. But more than that, the repression by the state had the effect of brining the small organisations together and by 1974, there emerged YULIMO (1974) to be followed five years later by the immensely popular United People’s Movement (UPM).
Having been involved right through all this, I can attribute the later advances to the early period, the level of commitment and discipline, the refusal to let lack of resources become an excuse for not being able to carry out activities. We used the drum, poetry and dance, working with Blazer Williams’ NAM, regular leaflets and an insistence of always working with the people.
BLAC was a fine example. We insisted on education both formal and political, holding political classes on the then unfinished reclamation site, using works by Walter Rodney, Fanon, MalcolmX and Nkrumah among others. We printed and circulated freely regular leaflets. Our work was not only political for we sponsored primary school children, gave a scholarship to Bishops College Kingstown to a young female student of Lowmans Hill and sponsored football and netball teams as well as a steel orchestra. Not only did BLAC football team gain promotion to the first division but from its ranks came national football leadership in the persons of Chris Burke (President) and Conley ‘Chivambo’ Rose (Secretary).
Culturally too, it was out of the ranks of BLAC, there emerged a whole group of conscious calypsonians, echoing what Black Messenger would call “Poor People’s cry”. Messenger and Reality were both founding members of BLAC. Later would come De Man Age, one of the most outstanding of the “message men” and ‘Dread Condition’ paving the way for YULIMO’s Sulle and Sagittarian later on.
Yes, gold and silver have we none, but what priceless contributions to the development of SVG!
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.