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Remembering those who led the fight for civil rights

 

By Sir Arthur Foulkes

 

Rosa Parks, the black American woman whose simple act of defiance sparked one of the great movements of the 20th century, died last October in her sleep.

 

It was in December 1955 that Mrs. Parks, a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white man. She was arrested, convicted and fined. That launched a bus boycott and the civil rights movement which changed the history of the United States.

 

It inspired and challenged leadership in the black community and that challenge was magnificently met by a young Baptist preacher who went on to lead a great non-violent revolution and to become a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. paid the ultimate price when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet in April 1968.

 

Mrs. Parks had been a member of the NAACP and a militant campaigner for civil rights and political equality for black Americans and for women but it was that single act at that particular moment that triggered the historic chain of events.

 

Other black women like Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith had also been arrested for attempting to break the segregation law on buses, and other blacks had been punished for violating humiliating laws.

 

History is full of such incidents which led to bigger things, and the idea of doing the right thing at the right time is much celebrated in literature:

 

“While we are talking, envious time is fleeing: seize the day, put no trust in the future.” – Horace in 25 BC.

 

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” – Shakespeare in 1599.

 

“Large streams from little fountains flow, Tall oaks from little acorns grow.” – David Everett in 1776.”

 

Rosa Parks seized the day and took the tide at the flood and from this sparkling Southern fountain a large stream did indeed flow.

 

Bahamians were privileged to entertain both Mrs. Parks and Dr. King on visits to this country.

 

Dr. King visited on many occasions during his years of struggle and encouraged Bahamian leaders in the way of non-violence. The first of these encounters took place on the second floor Bay Street offices of the late Bahamian realtor Basil Sands.

 

Many blacks resisted the evils of slavery and discrimination in the West, paid dearly for their audacity but helped to turn the heavy pages of history.

 

Some noble whites, too, helped to turn those pages.

 

In January, The Los Angeles Times recalled the small beginnings of a great movement which occurred at a building housing a bookstore and a print shop in London in May 1787.

 

Twelve men, including the Quakers Thomas Clarkson and James Phillips, started a movement which contributed to the dismantling of the most iniquitous institution in the history of humankind.

 

Said The Times, “They formed themselves into a committee with what seemed to their fellow Londoners a hopelessly idealistic and impractical aim: ending first the slave trade and then slavery itself in the most powerful empire on earth.”

 

In 1829 in the Bahamas a young slave named Pompey was among those who also helped to turn a significant page. Pompey led a small rebellion in Exuma and for his trouble received a public flogging of 39 lashes.

 

But, says Michael Craton and Gail Saunders in their history, Islanders In The Steam (Volume I), the rebellion “firmly established the principle that Bahamian slaves could not be moved with impunity against their will.”

 

So what are we to do with the legacy of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Thomas Clarkson, Pompey and many other freedom fighters?

 

After all, the struggle against racism is by no means over.

 

The racists in America, now restrained by law from discriminating in public places, have retreated to corporate board rooms and political caucuses whence they continue to work their mischief.

 

Here in the Bahamas we have achieved majority rule but we delude ourselves if we believe there is not more work to be done. We are more fortunate than many other countries which still suffer from acute forms of racism.

 

But we still have the negative residues of our history to clean up.

 

Like all the other problems of our society, the residue of racism will not dry up by itself. If left alone, as some suggest, it can have a poisonous effect when agitated by unexpected events.

 

Sir Arthur is the Bahamas' ambassador to China. A former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and the European Union, he is a journalist, writer, political activist and was a delegate to the Bahamas Independence Conference in London in 1972.

 

Sir Arthur blogs at Bahamapundit 

 

Please e-mail comments about this article to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com

 

 

 

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