NJAC Rededication: 1970 Revolution impacts spirituality and religion in T&T

“[…] White supremacist philosophy, then predominant in the society, was reinforced by very visible symbols of wealth, power, science, technology and general achievement, which resulted from centuries of exploitation of the human and physical resources of colonised societies around the world.

“[…] The new teachings of the Trinidad and Tobago Revolution and the resulting rise in enlightenment made most of these practices unacceptable after 1970.

“The people began to develop greater respect, confidence and belief in their own culture, philosophies and ideas. There was a renewed pride in what they inherited from their ancestors or what they created in their own communities…”

Photo: Spiritual Baptists dance during a church service.
(Copyright Afrikan Heritage)

The following is the seventh column in an NJAC series on their contribution to Trinidad and Tobago society after the ‘Black Power Revolution’ of 1970:

In 1970, the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), under the insightful leadership of the Chief Servant Makandal Daaga, launched a serious campaign for the liberation of the minds of our people in Trinidad and Tobago. This was a necessary step on the road to the creation of a free and just society. The existing colonial and slave mentality was the foundation for the political, economic, cultural, social and even religious denial of the dignity and humanity of the masses.

When NJAC launched the mass People’s Movement in 1970, we found that Caribbean society in general still maintained several of the practices, norms and policies of our slave, indentured and colonial past. Generations of non-white men and women had grown up in absolute powerlessness. They were victims of a society that denied them their right to govern their own lives and even imposed oppressive laws and regulations to limit their personal activities at the individual levels.

White supremacist philosophy, then predominant in the society, was reinforced by very visible symbols of wealth, power, science, technology and general achievement, which resulted from centuries of exploitation of the human and physical resources of colonised societies around the world. There is little wonder that these deceptive, dehumanising doctrines, suggesting the inferiority of colonised or ex-colonised peoples, have been so successful in implanting a self-fulfilling inferiority mindset in oppressed people.

Given these socio-political realities of 1970 society, NJAC’s call for people’s power and a new and just society was considered an act of rebellion by the existing power elite. It was a rebellion the controllers of power were bent on extinguishing.

Photo: Makandal-Daaga-Addresses-Thousands-of-Demonstrators-in-POS-in-1970 (courtesy NJAC)

NJAC and the movement, however, had a very forceful instrument in the tens of thousands of people marching daily and supporting NJAC’s demands for change. With the genius of Makandal Daaga’s leadership at the helm, NJACs mobilisation of the masses was so swift and dynamic that the powers that be, and everyone else, were compelled to lend a very attentive ear. NJAC was thus able to mount a very serious challenge to the white supremacist philosophy.

Racism was even present within some churches at that time. Before 1970, for instance, some churches gave special privileges to white members of the congregation (like reserved seats in the front pews or having the black members wait to allow the whites to leave first). The very fact that these practices were then widely accepted speaks volumes to the nature of race relations existing at that time. The new teachings of the Trinidad and Tobago Revolution and the resulting rise in enlightenment made most of these practices unacceptable after 1970.

The people began to develop greater respect, confidence and belief in their own culture, philosophies and ideas. There was a renewed pride in what they inherited from their ancestors or what they created in their own communities. A good example of this is seen in the immense impact the movement had on the development of philosophies and lifestyles that did not originate in Europe or North America.

The case of Rastafarianism is one significant example. The growth of the Rastafarian philosophy and lifestyle only took off in T&T in the 1970s. Tyehimba Salandy, in his book I and I in Iere Land: A History of the Rastafari Movement in Trinidad & Tobago, stated: “While the emergence of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica occurred within the context of British imperialist rule, the emergence of Rasta identity in Trinidad and Tobago happened in the post-independence period. The subsequent explosion of Rasta identity came after the initial Black Power uprising.”

The movement ushered in a new era for the religious community, particularly for the Catholic, Orisa, Spiritual Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican, Muslim and Hindu faiths. This was reflected in official and social recognition, changes in policy, as well as in a new awareness and growth in their members and followers. These faiths began to command greater space and respect within society.

In 1972, Dr Brinsley Samaroo, in reference to the impact of the Revolution on the East Indian community, stated, “Currently, there is the revival of rituals, increased religious fervour, name changing (back to Indian names) and a return to Indian forms of dress.”

Photo: Hindu women in Haryana dress with orni headwear.

It should also be noted that the first T&T national and the first African to be appointed Bishop of the Anglican Church in Trinidad and Tobago, Clive Abdullah, received his appointment on 29 September 1970. Even before his appointment, during the period of the mass demonstrations (26 February to 21 April 1970) Bishop Abdullah was very vocal in his criticism of the lack of representation of black leaders in the Anglican Church in Trinidad and Tobago.

During the 1980s and 1990s three historic laws were passed by the parliament to the benefit of the Orisa faith: the Act for the Incorporation of the Orisa Movement of Trinidad & Tobago, Egbe Ile Wa (1981); the Opa Orisa Shango Movement Act (1991); and the Orisa Marriage Act (1999). Trinidad and Tobago’s 1981 Act for the Incorporation of the Orisa Movement was the first legal enactment to legitimise the status of African-derived religions outside of the African continent. It was the first time that the Orisa faith was granted formal recognition and designated the status of other religious groups.

The Shouter Baptists also enjoyed a rise in their recognition and respect during this period. Barbara Grey-Burke (Archbishop of the Spiritual Shouter Baptists) was strongly influenced by the 1970 movement she participated in.

She said of the movement: “Women stood defiantly with the men during protest marches […] after 1970, more black women were employed in the banks and as air hostesses.”

She believed that for many black women in Trinidad and Tobago, Liseli Daaga (wife of Makandal Daaga) symbolised the ‘power of black consciousness’.

The 1970s was undeniably a period of true mental liberation for our people, thus releasing their natural potential for creativity and innovation.

Photo: Spiritual Baptists ring the bell.
(Copyright Washington Post)

Prior to 1970, T&T’s democracy rating was very low. Viewpoints that opposed those of the government or the ‘power elite’ were not tolerated. Several books that presented a different world view, often very progressive, were banned by the government as ‘subversive literature’. During this time, several NJAC members suffered persecution, police harassment, fines in court, arrests and detention in police cells before some of these undemocratic laws and practices were curbed.

This ran counter to the foundation of any truly democratic society based on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of expression and the general free flow of information that gave the population the opportunity to freely decide which philosophy (or approach) they considered the best.

Chairman Mao Tse Tung, leader of the Chinese Revolution, whose books were then banned in T&T, presented the spirit of democracy quite appropriately when he wrote: “Let one hundred flowers blossom, let one hundred schools of thought contend.”

In Trinidad and Tobago, on the other hand, a brilliant son of our soil, Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), was banned from coming home by the government led by Dr Eric Williams. Ture, who coined the slogan ‘Black Power’ and fought against racism and oppression of black people in the United States, was only allowed to come home to the land of his birth in 1996 when the ban was lifted by the Basdeo Panday government.

As a result of the influence of NJAC and the People’s Movement, a dialogue emerged among most of the religious denominations present in Trinidad and Tobago at the time. This led to the formation of the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO) in 1970. Three years later, the body was incorporated by an act of parliament on 17 July 1973.

Photo: Trinidadian Kwame Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael, is credited for turning the phrase ‘Black Power’ into a military slogan while living in the United States.

Also established was the Caribbean Conference of Churches, which published the Caribbean Contact paper to promote a regional religious and spiritual perspective. In one of its 1975 editions, the Caribbean Contact stated that the ‘saints’ of the 20th century did not come from ‘within the Church’ but from ‘outside the Church’. Three persons identified as such ‘saints’ were Makandal Daaga, Kwame Ture and Khafra Kambon.

Such was the regional and international impact of the movement that the pope convened a meeting of the World Conference of Churches (WCC) in Geneva to discuss the effect NJAC’s ideas were likely to have on religious activities and influence in the Caribbean. Reverend Roy Neehall of the Presbyterian faith represented Trinidad and Tobago at that meeting.

The WCC secretariat also gave Reverend Neehall the additional responsibility of investigating reports of ‘Black Power’ attacks on a church in Trinidad, arising out of the entry of demonstrators into the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on 26 February 1970. Reverend Neehall spent five days investigating the incident and submitted in his final report that there was no evidence of any attack on the church in Trinidad.

The existing churches at the time received much criticism for their failure to take a position or address the poverty and exploitation of large sections of our communities. There were some very positive responses, with the church fraternity generally becoming more sensitive to the needs of underprivileged members of the society.

There was also a greater effort on the part of religious bodies to take positive measures to alleviate the impact of poverty on their flock and on our communities in general. For instance, catholic priest Father Gerard Pantin and Wesley (Wes) Hall (a Barbadian and West Indian cricketer then on a coaching assignment with WITCO in Trinidad) founded Service Volunteered for All (Servol ) on 8 September 1970.

Photo: Gerard Pantin, founder of Servol (via servoltt.com)

The objective was to foster spiritual values, cooperation and family responsibility within underprivileged communities. Through Servol, the Church sought to provide opportunities for persons in dispossessed communities, with a special emphasis on Laventille.

Fifty years later, Servol continues to contribute to poverty alleviation among the needy through their training, character building and job opportunities. Approximately 300,000 persons have benefited from their training, nurturing and support programmes for children, young adults and young parents. The Servol model has been taken as far as Australia, Kenya, South Africa, Vietnam, Israel and Ireland, as well as to several Caribbean territories.

On 26 February 2020, the 50th anniversary of the launch of the mass People’s Movement, which culminated in the Trinidad and Tobago Revolution of 1970, NJAC returned to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The cathedral was occupied by demonstrators on that same date 50 years ago. The return to the cathedral earlier this year, however, took quite a different form; that of a service in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Trinidad and Tobago Revolution of 1970.

Archbishop Charles Jason Gordon, who conducted the commemorative service, stated in his homily: “Unless citizens understand the ‘deep underbelly’ of the Black Power Revolution and the way it still affects us today, 50 years later, then we would not move the revolution on to its next stage.

“1970 was a watershed but it leads us today to reflect on what the country has gained and in what ways the Black Power Revolution is still unfinished … Unfinished because we have reached far from where we were, but we have not yet come to the promised land…”

He added: “1970 wounds must heal for T&T to move forward.”

Photo: Kwasi Mutema and Archbishop Charles Gordon

Servant Leader of NJAC Kwasi Mutema told the congregation at the Cathedral: “… you have young people who would have followed the script, so to speak. They went to their schools, they went to their universities, they graduated, and we have young professional doctors and lawyers who just cannot find work, and they are unhappy. They cannot move forward with their lives.

“They want to start a family, but they have to deliberately put that on hold. That is a severe state of unhappiness and we do not realise what we are doing to our society when you get that level of unhappiness. A happy people do not commit crime.”

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