Lenworth Burke | Musings on Walter Rodney
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
The aphorism came to mind as I entered the University of the West Indies at Mona in the evening of June 15, 2016 for the seminar titled 'The Assassination of Walter Rodney in Guyana: Reflections on the Commission of Enquiry Report'.
When the Hugh Shearer-led JLP Government banned Rodney from Jamaica in October 1968, I was 12 years old and in second form. I have a recollection of black and white images of UWI students barricading the main gate at Mona. That demonstration was my earliest introduction to Mona and to social struggle.
The commission of inquiry report was delivered to the Guyana government in February 2016 and has not been publicised. The three eminent Caribbean jurists who conducted the inquiry and compiled the report Richard Cheltenham of Barbados, Seenath Jairam of Trinidad and Tobago, and Jacqueline Samuels Brown of Jamaica found that Gregory Smith, a sergeant in the Guyana Defence Force, murdered Dr Walter Rodney with a bomb concealed in a walkie-talkie. They found that the murder was committed with the full participation of the Guyana Police Force and the Guyana Defence Force and that it was a state-organised assassination carried out with the knowledge of Prime Minister Forbes Burnham.
These findings, 36 years after the murder on June 13, 1980, are a source of personal satisfaction to me. That's why Martin Luther King's aphorism came to mind. I feel that some justice has now been done as I felt in October 1998 when the previously untroubled General Augusto Pinochet was detained and placed under house arrest, although briefly, in London for his murderous crimes in Chile; and as I felt on that morning of February 11, 1990, when Nelson Mandela walked to freedom after 27 years in prison.
On that morning, we got pictures of an aged man to complement those of the young freedom fighter we had come to love and struggle for. Not so with Walter. All his photographs are those of a young man. When he was declared persona non grata in 1968 and banned from Jamaica, he was 26. When he was assassinated in 1980 in Guyana, he was only 38. Mervyn Morris, who wrote one of the many Rodney poems, underscores the point: "He seemed to me a good man/ reaching for the moon/ He died/ too soon."
Walter Rodney's widow, Dr Patricia Rodney, gives a synopsis of his life in the Introduction to the present edition of his celebrated 1969 book The Groundings with My Brothers'. Walter won an open scholarship to UWI in 1960, graduated with first-class honours in history in 1963, and went to London, where he received his doctoral degree at the age of 24. He taught in Tanzania then returned to Mona to take up a teaching position.
In the aftermath of his ban from Jamaica, there were demonstrations by students, the use of excessive force by the police, the spreading of the unrest to the community, and riots in the streets that led to the overturning and burning of buses, several deaths, and millions of dollars in property damage over two weeks of unrest. After being banned, Rodney penned his seminal and now classic work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, joined the Working People's Alliance in Guyana, and continued his activism and political engagement as one of its leaders until his death.
The seminar was organised by the UWI and moderated by Rodney scholar Professor Rupert Lewis. There were six panellists. Professor Horace Campbell of the Justice for Walter Rodney Committee spoke of the need for restorative and reparative justice. He opined, in the question-and-answer session, that the Jamaica Government, in banning Rodney, had established, at an ideological level, a precedent for state action against him. It was perhaps not without irony, someone noted, that the seminar was being held on the same day as the release of the report of the west Kingston commission of enquiry 2016.
Richard Small, attorney-at-law, and friend of Walter from London student days who had shared his intellectual association there with C.L.R. James, spoke of the commission's finding that the Guyana government facilitated the change of name of Sergeant Gregory Smith after the assassination, issued him with false passports, and arranged for the transport of him and his family into safe exile in French Guiana. Richard Small commended to the gathering the need for further work to be done in studying and publicising the report of the commission.
Andrew Pilgrim, QC, attorney-at-law from Barbados who represented the Rodney family at the commission of inquiry, reminded the audience that the People's National Congress, the party of Forbes Burnham, was again in power in Guyana today.
Dr Wazir Mohammed of the Justice for Walter Rodney Committee read the final paragraph of the commission's report, which stated that the ethnic divide between Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese constitutes a fragile fault line that is placed under stress by general elections.
Dr Mohammed commented that Walter Rodney was acutely aware of that divide, which is still in need of national attention and healing today.
Donald Rodney, Walter's younger brother who was with him at the time of the bombing, was also one of the panellists. He seemed pained but not bitter in his presentation. He was charged by the Guyana police for
complicity in the bombing, falsely convicted in 1992, and is still engaged in appealing his conviction.
There were some community booksellers in the conference room. In silent and sustained renunciation of the book-banning ideology of the 1960s Jamaican Government, they offered books, including Rodney's for sale. In more strident dispensation outside the room, the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, somewhat removed from the glory days when their own leader Count Ossie was still alive, beat out their homage to Walter and their unrelenting repudiation of the banning of drums during slavery.
And there was the presentation of Dr Pat Rodney, Walter's widow. She spoke succinctly of the husband who taught her to cook and of a caring father of her children. She spoke of a man who was an ordinary, humble person who did extraordinary things. She informed us that Walter's death certificate lists the occupation of this world-renowned historian and professor as 'Unemployed', and the cause of his decease as 'death by misadventure' the latter lie cruelly denying the family financial support from his life-insurance policy.
Pat Rodney told us of having to depart Guyana to bring up her children as a single mother in Barbados and advised that the recent official letter from the Office of the President of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana furnishing her with a copy of the commission's findings bore the wrong date of Walter's death.
She thanked the commission for its work and encouraged persons to sign the online petition calling for publication of the report by the government of Guyana. (Go to www.change.org, type in Walter Rodney; the full report is also available there.) And she spoke, always, with dignity.
We mourn the loss of a brilliant scholar and thinker who put his ideas into writing. We mourn the loss of an activist who put his ideas into practice. We mourn the loss of a young leader who stood up and put his life on the line. But we do not mourn solely from the standpoint of politics. We also mourn the loss of a man and remember the private, personal loss that the family alone has to bear as widow and child and brother. And so, in honouring Walter Rodney, we salute Pat Rodney and Walter's family and echo Mervyn Morris' words:
"He lived/a simple life/ He was a man/ who cared/ when anybody hurt/ not just the wretched of the earth."
• Lenworth Burke is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback