The 50th Anniversary of the Black Power Movement
will be commemorated on Ash Wednesday with a 9 a.m. Service at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Archbishop Jason Gordon will attend. The following is an edited version of an article submitted to Catholic News by the organisers.
On Thursday, February 26, 1970 the National Joint Action Committee organised a demonstration in solidarity with some 38 Caribbean students (11 of whom were citizens of Trinidad & Tobago) who were on trial in Canada.
After stops at the Canadian Embassy, as well as at Canadian institutions, the demonstrators entered the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. With racism, albeit in Canada, already at the top of the agenda, the demonstrators reacted to the all-white statues in the Cathedral. Two statues were draped with black cloth, as the total absence of any non-white presence among the celestial figures was reflected on the walls of the cathedral.
NJAC’s entry into the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was used by the State as an excuse to intervene in what was a peaceful demonstration in pursuit of justice.
Despite a media release by the then Archbishop Anthony Pantin that there had been no desecration of the Cathedral, charges were still brought against ten of the demonstrators.
The intervention of the State, however, only served to heighten the public demand for justice. What started as a small solidarity march, erupted within a few days into mass demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people. Under the astute leadership of Makandal Daaga (then Geddes Granger), the masses responded most passionately to the clarion call of the day, “Let us make the necessary sacrifices now and not leave the burden to the next generation.”
In 1970, NJAC emerged as the leadership of a movement for social, political, economic, cultural and philosophical change in T&T and the region. The movement demanded equal treatment and justice for all, particularly the majority African and Indian population who still bore the inhumane burden of their past status as slaves and indentures.
There was significant impact on the growth and development of almost every type of institution in T&T, including the Catholic Church.
According to an article in the Catholic News of Saturday March 7, 1970, written by Father Boyd Reid, “The incidents in the Cathedral may shock some of us into making serious efforts to change, so that the teaching and practice of the church may really set men free…… The church is always in need of renewal and this protest should bring to our attention an important area where such renewal is needed….”
A mere two weeks after NJAC’s entry into the Cathedral, the Catholic Church was again embroiled in this great movement. NJAC had set Thursday, March 12, 1970 for the highly significant ‘March to Caroni’ for national unity. The NJAC leader Makandal Daaga invited His Grace Anthony Pantin, to join the march of liberation for a better country. His Grace Anthony Pantin responded very positively.
Affirming that he believed it to be the will of God that he march with the least of his brethren, he agreed to join the demonstrators at the Curepe intersection of the Old Southern Main Road and the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway.
There was widespread controversy, with some supporting his participation, while others were against. Archbishop Pantin eventually withdrew his decision to demonstrate and apologised to those who may have been hurt by his original decision to march as well as to those who would have been affected by his decision to withdraw his commitment to march.
Years later Archbishop Pantin said that his decision to not march was one which he regretted immensely.
February 26 represents the vast potential of our people to respond positively to the challenges we may face, once given the opportunity. The NJAC leadership recognised this and demanded “Power to the People”, with people being placed at the centre of all pursuits.
The Catholic Church and the religious fraternity in general were influenced by the revolutionary movement of the 1970s. Such was the impact of the movement that the Pope convened a meeting in Geneva to discuss the implications for the Church. T&T was represented by Rev Roy Neehall at that meeting.
The Church became more involved in community life, with emphasis on Laventille and the poorer communities. The Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) and the Caribbean Conference of Churches were formed, with the CCC publishing the Caribbean Contact newspaper to communicate with the Caribbean people.