Bert Samuels, GUEST COLUMNIST
In June 1965, Martin Luther King Jr visited Jamaica when I was 11 years old. We were not yet one year into being granted 'Independence' from the British. King came here at a time when white rule via colonialism was evident in all institutions, including the Constitution, which retained the Queen of England as our head of State.
King, an African-American, was part of a minority race, subject to white rule in his country. In Jamaica, that demographic reality was turned on its head. White rule here was maintained, notwithstanding the fact that we African-Jamaicans, represented 98 per cent of the population. With skill, and divide-and-rule tactics, the British achieved the historic feat of giving us a flag and leading us to believe the myth that we were now in a place to determine our own destiny, penniless.
King's visit to Jamaica was made against that backdrop. Today, his 50-year-old 'Dream' speech, given two years before he came to Jamaica in 1965, is as applicable to the USA as it is to Jamaica.
And for those who have not been told - or have conveniently chosen to forget what life was when King came here - let me tell it like it was. No black Jamaican could get a job as a bank teller here. The heads of the military and the police were all white. Our hotels were considered off-limits for local blacks. High schools, a couple of years later, demanded that black girls who kept Afro hairstyles were ordered to cut their hair.
Our women who have elected to keep their hair in its natural kinky state have always been pressured by questions such as, "When are you going to do something about your hair?" Many have been forced to process their hair to gain employment and acceptance.
Consequently, an epidemic of low self-esteem is rife among our people. At immense risk to their health, many are now devoted to skin lightening by bleaching, which is the manifestation of the legacy of marginalisation of black people in Jamaica.
The police force was trained to discriminate against Rastafarians who were seen by the status quo as the dregs of the earth. The likes of Bob Marley were seen as 'dutty Rasta boys'. That is why a Rasta with a ganja spliff was never fined by our courts, but had to go to prison for a minimum of six months. When Rastafarians were imprisoned, their locks were trimmed, as a matter of course, the day of their arrival in prison.
King's famous line two years before he came here, that he wanted a society where his children would be judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin, was not being applied here, where the rule was 'If you're black, step back; if you're brown, stick around. And if you are white, you are right.'
I won't forget an old-timer being interviewed years later about a Bustamante-led protest march. When he was through describing the fine beating the police gave St William Grant, a black civil-rights leader in Jamaica, the old-timer was asked by the interviewer whether the police had also beaten Bustamante, the leader of the protest. He sat up and hastily responded with the following words: "You crazy, you could never hit a mulatto man in those days!"
My law offices at 4 Duke Street were, in 1970, the chambers of ethnic-minority lawyers. I recall going there to make monthly mortgage payments on behalf of my parents. When I peeped down the area known as the typing pool, there was not one African-Jamaican employed as a secretary. The only black people employed there were the messengers and the cleaners!
Oppression and marginalisation of Black people were features common to the United States and Jamaica when King came here and when he gave that Dream speech in 1963. We owe it to our young people to tell them our sad history so close to the present, but too often swept under the carpet as we continue in our amnesia that, for a majority of Jamaicans, it was the colour of their skin and not the content of their character that denied them a place in the Jamaican book of who is who.
Bert S. Samuels is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.