Our 51st anniversary of Independence happens to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Recently, I re-read Dr Williams’s address at the Independence Youth Rally on August 10, 1962.
The speeches by our first prime minister and the civil rights leader addressed different circumstances: one, the matter of Independence, the other, freedom from oppression. In classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, “How well he spoke,” but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, the people said “Let us march.”
The scholar-turned-politician and the civil rights leader were undertaking momentous tasks and both were trying to encourage their nations to move forward.
The Williams speech was straightforward, instructive and patriotic. It did not reach the sonorous heights of the MLK Jr speech, or rather oration. The scholar was addressing the youth, and at the same time the entire nation, about the responsibilities of Independence.
For the people, Independence was something intangible. They had never seen, felt or had it before. To the people, this Independence thing was terra incognita. Thus, Williams, more teacher than politician, had to cajole, instruct and advise not only the youth but also the about-to-be-born nation. This he did superbly in his dry, staccato-like cadence.
We know that the struggle for Independence in Trinidad and Tobago was not a fierce one as so often happened on the Asian and African continents. Here, there was no deep and abiding animosity between the colony and the departing colonial power. In fact, Independence was there for the plucking and was indeed handed to us on a platter. The struggle was more internal. The story has been told that just when the meeting at Marlborough House appeared to be heading towards a long and intractable affair, the leader of the opposition and the head of the dele-
gation met during a break and had a few words together. When the delegation returned to the negotiating table, the issues which had bedevilled the parties were resolved.
Williams may have well had in mind the turbulent session at Marlborough House or previous bumpy occasions, hence his advice to the children and the nation: “You learn to live together in peace or you fight and destroy one another.”
For those whom he believed were set in their ways, he placed the responsibility on the children to “educate your parents”.
If others did not fully comprehend what nation-building was all about, he let them know that honesty and integrity were salient ingredients in that process. This speech was carefully crafted as one befitting a man of Williams’s erudition. He was always speaking to the children but also through them, to their parents and the budding nation. His watchwords, “Discipline, Production and Tolerance”, applied to all three communities. Knowing what we know today, the speech was breathtaking in its vision.
MLK’s speech was different. It had to be because it was addressing an issue of ongoing oppression. While most Trinidadians and Tobagonians found Independence intangible, something which they could not readily package, that was not the case with MLK’s audience. They knew the nature of the beast that the Prince of Peace was attacking. The history of injustice and inequality was still with them, years after emancipation. As MLK Jr put it, “the life of the negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination”. The result was that the negro was “still languishing in the corners of American society...”.
As Williams, MLK Jr was not addressing solely the black sector of American society. He was addressing blacks, whites and the wider world. He knew that “many of our white brothers...realise that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom”.
In this context, he unveiled the dream for his four children, living in a nation where “they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.
Both these leaders, one a teacher, the other a preacher, summoned their people to a higher cause under different circumstances. One was assassinated. To what extent were they successful?
Was one Cicero, the other Demosthenes? Regardless, we are all in debt for their contributions.
—Basil Ince is a retired
professor of political science
• Rickey Singh returns next week