"I need not remind you of the fact that I must live with and I must deal with and struggle with that which brings a great deal of humiliation to my life and the life of the people with whom I work, and it is always a heartening and enriching experience when I can be in a situation when I can feel like I am somebody. And in Jamaica I really feel like a human being..."
The speaker was the Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who was a guest of the Government and people of Jamaica in the week of June 20-25, 1965, when he and Mrs King and associates, including Dr and Mrs Ralph Abernathy, and the Revd Bernard Lee accepted the invitation to visit us.
Two years before, he made world history by leading the march on Washington, DC, where he delivered his famous "dream speech". The 50th anniversary is being commemorated this week all across the USA and watched in other parts of the globe. The "like a human being" statement which Dr King made while visiting Kingston is not widely quoted in America, as far as we know, but to Jamaicans who heard it that day and treasured the strength of his word, it was one of the most significant compliments we could possibly have been paid. Revd King's oratory is memorable not just for the sound of his voice but the significance of his words.
During his visit here, he took the opportunity to honour the influence of another man of Jamaican heritage who, like the Biblical prophets, was "not without honour, save in his own country". Jamaicans have not always seen virtue in Marcus Mosiah Garvey, but Dr King was not afraid to publicly proclaim the high esteem in which he held him.
While receiving the keys to the city of Kingston, Dr King extolled him as a role model to persons bending under the yoke of racism and injustice. While many Jamaicans still remain ambivalent to Garvey's message, Dr King had no such doubts. He described Garvey as "the first man of colour in the history of the United States to lead and develop a mass movement". He saw Garvey as the "first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of negroes a sense of dignity and destiny and make the negro feel he was somebody".
Today, we wouldn't be caught dead using that particular "N word", but Dr King's time was a different time, and he was fearless in speaking his mind. Of Jamaica he said:
"You gave Marcus Garvey to the United States of America and he gave to the millions of negroes in the United States a sense of personhood, a sense of manhood, a sense of somebodiness. (Prof Nettleford was to speak later of "smaddytisation", an obvious cousin of "somebodiness".) Imagine if we had appropriated such advice and set out to build on it. Would we be as confused as we are today?
We have proclaimed Garvey a national hero, but honouring his worth and words is largely unknown to a new generation. As Burning Spear challenges us: "Remember the days of old Marcus Garvey." We still have memory deficiency. There is much more room for Garvey's memory to strengthen us for the next leg of the journey, says a wise old friend, referring to both Jamaica and the USA.
Perhaps it was because of Dr King's kind view of us in those civil rights years why we gained some good friends in US inner circles, eg the Revd. Andrew Young, who became the US Ambassador to the United Nations, and the very impressive youthful politician Julian Bond, among others. Bond was brought here as a luncheon speaker by one of our service clubs -- most likely Rotary -- which at that time was still obeying the international all-male membership.
I decided that no gender bias would prevent me as a reporter from hearing him. I sneaked into the meeting room at a New Kingston establishment, prepared to do battle if anyone tried to put me out. No one paid me the slightest mind, and I got to listen to Mr Bond undisturbed. Today, I can't remember a word he said, but I did hear him speak. In the media blitz which has been going on over recent days, in the US, I saw both Ambassador Young and Mr Bond on TV -- older now but still fighting the fight. Revd Young became a regular visitor here and was open in defence of Jamaica during the traumatic seventies and after. Talking with him was both enjoyable and informative.
After Dr King had been cruelly taken away by an assassin's bullets in 1968, in 1969 I accompanied the National Dance Theatre Company on a tour to Spellman College in Atlanta, where Mrs Coretta Scott-King and two of her children attended the performance and met members of the company. She recalled the joyful time of visiting Jamaica with her late husband, who revelled in the warmth of the welcome we gave him, she said.
The "dream speech" is being reanlaysed this week. There is growing anger and disillusionment among African Americans and other minority groups that, in America, where voting rights were hard won, they are being tampered with. The first black president is coming under siege, doubted not only by the traditional white opponents, but his own people who are anxious over jobs, the state of the economy, the high cost of student loans, disproportionate incarceration of black men, among other problems.
These are difficult times for President Obama. If Dr King were here today, would he be surprised at such developments? Which of his world-famous quotes would rally flagging spirits? I've just discovered: "Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase." Definite food for thought and action.
PS: Apology to Miss Minna McLeod, who was a member of the National Honours and Awards review team of 1996, whose demise I reported in the August 2 edition of this column. Seems the source of my information confused you with your sister who passed on some time ago. Sorry, Miss Minna. Thanks for your exemplary service to this country, through the YWCA and other community service organisations from which you are now retired. Glad that we're still blessed by your presence.
PPS: The Butler: By co-incidence or design, this is the must-see film of the week, now in local cinemas, a useful and enjoyable flashback to the civil rights struggle of half-a-century ago. Well worth "the picture fare".