The Targeting of Walter Rodney

— Michael O. West

ON OCTOBER 15, 1968 the government of Jamaica barred Walter Rodney from returning to the island. A lecturer at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Rodney had been out of the country attending a Black Power conference in Canada. The Guyanese-born Rodney was no stranger to Jamaica, having graduated from UWI in 1963. He returned to his alma mater as a faculty member at the beginning of 1968, after doing graduate studies in England and working briefly in Tanzania.

Rodney’s second stint in Jamaica lasted all of nine months, but it was a tumultuous and amazing nine months. It is a measure of the mark he made, within and without the university, that the decision to ban him sparked major disturbances, culminating in a riot in the capital city of Kingston. The U.S. government, as represented by its embassy in Kingston, took a keen interest in what was immediately dubbed the “Rodney affair” and in the Black Power phenomenon it so powerfully highlighted.

The American authorities were then engaged in a full-scale repression of a Black Power insurgency at home,(1) and the Rodney affair brought into sharp relief the international character of the “menace.” Accordingly, U.S. diplomats not only closely monitored Black Power activities in Jamaica (and elsewhere in the Caribbean), but they also worked in concert with the Jamaican government to rein in Black Power movements and militants, even as the Americans sometimes took a jaundiced view of the activities of the Jamaican authorities.

Official U.S. documents, until now untapped, shed new light on the Rodney affair. We learn, in detail, about the surveillance of Rodney and his activities by the Special Branch of the Jamaican police in the months before he was banned, documents the Jamaicans apparently shared with the U.S. embassy. The evidence also sheds light on the inner workings of the Jamaican government and why it acted against Rodney at the particular time that it did.

The Jamaican intelligence services, which had kept a file on Rodney during his days as an undergraduate at the UWI from 1960 to 1963, resumed its surveillance of him on his return to the island as a lecturer in January 1968.  Summing up his activities over a period of seven years, the Jamaican spymasters reckoned that Rodney was a “convinced Communist with pro-Castro ideals, and latterly to have taken an interest in Black Power.”(2)

The mixture of so-called pro-Castro communism and Black Power would soon prove combustible. We read in Rodney’s intelligence file that he “lost little time in interesting himself in Jamaican politics on his return to the island.” One of his first acts, reportedly, was to organize a meeting of “six ‘reactionary fellows’ (Rodney’s words).”(3) It was a case of birds of a feather flocking together: “All present at this meeting have adverse security records,” the intelligence file notes.  Determined to organize for “the struggle ahead,” Rodney sought the advice of the “reactionary fellows” as to the best course of action. “Two organizations were suggested to him,”  the opposition People’s National Party (PNP) and the New World Group (NWG), “an organization of ‘armchair’ left wing intellectuals” that operated throughout the Anglophone Caribbean.

Rodney, the spymasters asserted, was less than pleased with the counsel of the “reactionary fellows.” “He was not impressed by either” the PNP or the NWG. “The former he felt (and rightly) would wish to have nothing to do with him, and the latter was too academic and not sufficiently in touch with the masses.” Rodney, as represented by the spooks, opted to bypass the existing political movements and go directly to the toilers. “He wished, he said, to meet the working people anywhere and everywhere in Jamaica. He expressed interest in the Rastafarians.”(4)

Besides the Rastafarians, the intelligence file indicates, Rodney took a special interest in two other groups: urban youths (including youth gangs) and a heterodox religious movement led by the Rev. Claudius Henry. Henry, in particular, had long been a thorn in the side of the Jamaican government. Convicted of leading an uprising in 1960, he was imprisoned and then released in 1966, whereupon he promptly resumed his jeremiads against the regime.

Rodney’s political activities during his 1968 Jamaica sojourn likely had a strategic purpose. His goal, it seems, was to forge a broad Black Power alliance, a formation that would include Rastafarians, urban youths, and religious rebels like the Rev. Henry. Painting a picture of a man of boundless energy, Rodney’s intelligence file notes ruefully that he also “has interested himself in the formation of a Black Power Movement (BPM) in Jamaica and is attempting to set up branches in the UWI and in the city of Kingston.”

At an exploratory gathering at UWI, he reportedly outlined four aims of Black Power: creating an awareness of blackness, mobilizing black people “to act in their own interests,” rejecting “white cultural imperialism,” and ensuring “the rule of blacks in black society.” He demanded “a complete break with the capitalist system,” and rejected the official Jamaican creed “out of many, one people.” Jamaicans, the report quotes Rodney as saying, are “predominantly black and not a multiracial community. Therefore they should be governed only by black people.” These aims, he is supposed to have concluded, “could be achieved only by revolution, adding that no revolution has ever taken place without a violent struggle.”(5)

The Black Power convergence in which Rodney stood front and center was a wide umbrella that included elements without and within the university: Rastafarians, urban youths, religious rebels, students and dissident intellectuals. Conspicuously missing from the mix was organized labor, or any significant subsection thereof. This important segment of society, which included some of the most stable, highly-skilled and better-paid portions of the working class, belonged to trade unions that were not just allied with the country’s two dominant political parties, but also were central pillars of their organizational structures. To the extent that the postcolonial dispensation produced tangible benefits for working people, organized labor was among the chief beneficiaries.

Conversely, Black Power spoke for those who had tasted the least, or not at all, of the fruit of decolonization, or those who had partaken of the fruit but found it disagreeable. In all of the societies impacted by Black Power, the disaffected group consisted of the urban youth, students, and radical intellectuals.  In the particular case of Jamaica, the Black Power convergence drew in, and in many respects was founded on, other disaffected elements, notably Rastafarians and likeminded religious rebels. From the global standpoint, Black Power was part of the “New Left.” Almost everywhere organized labor remained a mainstay of the “Old Left,” out of which the New Left emerged but against which it was also directed, ideologically and organizationally.

In August 1968, the Jamaican intelligence services offered an assessment of Rodney’s activities since his return to the island in January of that year. His political endeavors, they concluded, revealed “a history of subversive action, agitation and organization of a Black Power movement, and the propagandization of Communism and violence.” Still, the spymasters reckoned, he posed “no immediate threat to internal security.” His penchant for building alliances among the discontented, however, contained the seeds of future peril: “he is potentially dangerous since he might succeed in bringing together various disaffected elements in Jamaica.”(6)

The Jamaican intelligence services, and the politicians they served, dreaded a Black Power combination. They saw Rodney, appropriately so, as the key link in any such organizational chain. An outstanding feature of Black Power in Jamaica was its diffusiveness.(7) No central organizational structure cohered the disparate Black Power and allied groups on the island. Jamaica, in this regard, differed from other societies in which Black Power gained relatively wide currency.

In the United States, the Black Panther Party served as something of a national clearinghouse for Black Power, while the Black People’s Convention and the National Joint Action Committee fulfilled similar functions in South Africa and Trinidad, respectively. In Jamaica, to the contrary, Rastafarians of various stripes, religious rebels as represented by the Rev. Henry and his group, urban youths, university students, and radical intellectuals remained uncoordinated and unsynchronized on a national basis.

Rodney, almost single-handedly, stood athwart the multiplicity of voices and activities. He personally supplied whatever coherence Black Power may have had on the island as a whole. More than anything else, Rodney symbolized the potential for Black Power coalescing. Little wonder the lawmen fretted he “might succeed in bringing together various disaffected elements in Jamaica.” Indeed, he was potentially dangerous to the society they were sworn to uphold, although not in the way they imagined, or would soon claim.

In September 1968, a month after their initial assessment, the spymasters updated Rodney’s file. The potential threat about which they had previously spoken, the spooks now asserted, was beginning to be realized. “For some time,” the addendum states, the intelligence services had “recommended the deportation of Rodney because of his subversive activities,” which nefarious behavior continued unabated.  He “has maintained his close association” with the Rev. Henry, providing him with a schedule of upcoming events at UWI and agreeing to speak at his churches throughout the island. Rodney, furthermore, also “has maintained close contact” with Black Power organizers in Kingston.(8)

The most significant and alarming addition to Rodney’s intelligence file between August and September 1968, however, was a claim that he had become a danger to the all-important tourist sector! The intelligence services “received information that Rodney had been in touch with Rastafarians in the Montego Bay area and was trying to incite them to attack the tourists in December which is the beginning of the peak of the tourist season.”

As if to cast a patina of disinterested objectivity over their craft, the spymasters added, in the very next sentence: “it is problematic whether Rodney would have been successful” in such an undertaking.(9) Problematic indeed.  Only a month previously, the same cast of characters had pronounced Rodney’s wooing of the Rastafarians a failure.  Although disposed to accord Rodney “the respect due to a man of learning,” they had asserted, the dreads were “unwilling to accept him as a leader.”

But the guardians of Jamaica’s security need not have worried about consistency; like intelligence handlers everywhere, their assertions faced no burden of proof. They just needed to work their will on their political superiors, or else satisfy the latter’s desire. Any indication that the trade in white gold, and the whites who embodied the gold, were endangered would obviously be a serious matter of state. The mere hint that Rodney, in conjunction with the despised dreads, posed a threat to the tourist industry, then as now the holy grail of Jamaica’s political economy, was enough to jolt the politicians into action, despite the fact that the spymasters disingenuously discredited the reputed threat even while asserting its existence.

Even the U.S. embassy was unimpressed by the quality of the intelligence. Although sharply critical of the “impotent groups of agitators,” including “black power and other racist, Marxist, [and] anti-establishment” elements with which Rodney was associated, American diplomats impeached the Jamaican intelligence services as overzealous and partisan. Using Rodney’s case to make a larger point, the U.S. legation reported to Washington that the island’s spymasters were “prone to press the Government to take suppressive and harassing action,” such as deportations, arrests, and police raids, “where the basis of arrest and conviction is uncertain or likely to be unpopular.”(10)

 Actually, the relationship between Jamaica’s producers and consumers of intelligence may have been more complicated than this account suggests. The spymasters, although perhaps having their own agenda, also may have had a knack for supplying “intelligence” they thought, or knew, the politicians wanted. Buoyed by the damning report about his threat to tourism, the politicians now felt they had the political, if not exactly the legal, authority to deal with Rodney. The move was a preemptive strike against the coherence of Black Power in Jamaica, its purpose being to break the circle Rodney had taken the lead in seeking to forge.

Accordingly, the cabinet met on October 14 and declared Rodney persona non grata. The decision seems remarkably unhurried, since the information on which the cabinet acted had been available for at least two weeks, and perhaps much longer. The allegation, after all, was reputed to be of the utmost seriousness. “Never in the history of modern Jamaica,” the minister of legal affairs would later fulminate, “has there been [a] man who provided greater threat to [the] security of Jamaica than Rodney.”(11)

If indeed ministers had credible intelligence that Rodney presented such an imminent danger, to the extent of inciting violent attacks on the country’s economic lifeline, then surely they would have moved against him more swiftly than they actually did, notions of tropical sluggishness notwithstanding.

On the day Rodney was banned, the UWI campus erupted; angry students quickly arranged for buses and trucks to take them to the offices of the prime minister and the minister of home affairs to protest the following day.  The vehicles failed to appear, and the students blamed the heavy hand of officialdom. The protestors took to their heels, only to be met by police officers wielding batons and firing teargas.(12) Subsequently, the students returned to campus.

The protest, however, had not ended. Indeed, the activities of the students would prove merely to be a dress rehearsal for those of a group of city dwellers who had joined them.  U.S. diplomatic communications offer a striking contrast between the two groups of protestors. Yet the scene, incongruous though it may have seemed, reflected well the spectrum of the alliance Rodney was seeking to build.

Respectable in protest, the students were smartly turned out in “red academic gowns and carrying [a] large assortment [of] homemade anti-government signs.”(13) Under provocation, they briefly abandoned decorum to engage in a “stone fight” with supporters of the pro-government Bustamante Industrial Trade Union as they passed its headquarters.(14)

The city dwellers, presumably without placards and definitely less majestically attired, were also far less restrained. From all indications, these non-students were an amorphous lot, including, no doubt, the just curious and the plain opportunistic — “unemployed youths and members of the lumpenproletariat,” one scholar has called them.(15) Yet it seems safe to assume that, initially at least, the core of the non-student protestors would have consisted of urban youths familiar with the person, or the legend, of the beloved “Brother Wally,” the fearless anti-Babylon chanter.(16)

The students having retired from protest, the city dwellers marched into the city center, the country’s commercial, financial and diplomatic hub. As they did so, whatever discipline they previously exhibited fell away, and relatively orderly formation gave way to rowdy discord. The demonstration morphed into the headless multitude, and a civil mutiny turned into a riotous assembly.

Armed with stones, missiles they doubtless were more adept at deploying than the students, and Molotov cocktails fashioned from soda bottles and gasoline, roving bands of rioters scoured the business district. They singled out the holdings of international capital — prominent among them banking, insurance and oil concerns. Some rioters turned their wrath on the merchant class, everywhere a conspicuous symbol of oppression to the poor, breaking store windows and looting goods. Others burned the foreign-owned city buses, which, in addition to having a record of poor service, had recently increased fares.

Still other rioters targeted automobiles driven and occupied by seemingly affluent individuals — vehicles that were “status symbols of what is considered the better life,” according to US officials.(17) The victims included “several [American] embassy officers,” whose automobiles were “extensively damaged” by rocks but who managed to escape with only “superficial personal injuries.”(18)

U.S. officials believed the rising to be “spontaneously generated.”(19) They found no evidence of involvement by “dissident or subversive organizations.” The Jamaican governing and ruling classes thought otherwise. The rising, they proclaimed in unison, was the handiwork of foreigners and their internal confederates. Politicians and commentators proceeded to denounce both groups with abandon, but the greater animus was reserved for the foreign agitators, most of whom came from elsewhere in the Caribbean; in other language, “small islanders,” a category from which denizens of Guyana, located on the South American mainland, apparently were not exempt.

Institutionally, the xenophobia was directed at the entity that brought the bulk of the unwanted aliens to Jamaica: UWI. The shrill calls to throw out the meddling foreigners and “Jamaicanize” UWI began at the very top of the political pyramid, spearheaded by a man described by Rodney as “the Dishonourable H. L. Shearer, Prime Minister of Jamaica” and head of the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).(20)

The virulence of the anti-foreign, or, to be more precise, anti-Caribbean and anti-UWI diatribe alarmed U.S. officials on the island. The crisis, they warned their superiors in Washington, was eroding the “slender thread of stability from which hangs the Damoclean sword of riot and revolution, or, perhaps, rightist reaction.”(21)

If the official opposition also feared the rise of Thermidor, it was difficult to tell. The People’s National Party, it is true, generally decried the jingoism of the government and its supporters. Fundamentally, however, the PNP had no disagreement with the regime. One PNP parliamentarian, according to the US summary, complained that the government had “made Rodney a martyr, increased his following, and stimulated [the] likelihood of external support for revolutionary movement in Jamaica.”

PNP leader Norman Manley, for his part, “did not question wisdom that decision had to be taken, but did not like way it was done,” to use the economical wording of the US embassy cable.22 The government had ejected Rodney amid a cacophony of anti-foreign tirade. The PNP acclaimed the former while disclaiming the latter. The PNP’s slogan, if it had one, would have been “No Rodney, no xenophobia.”

Politically and morally, the Jamaica Labour Party government never recovered from the Rodney affair.  Accordingly, the opposition People’s National Party easily won the next election, in 1972. Not only was Black Power instrumental in laying the social foundations for the PNP victory, albeit inadvertently, but the PNP’s campaign very advertently courted some notable Black Power constituencies and brazenly appropriated their symbolic currency, with nary a hint of contrition for its complicity in the repression of the movement, including Rodney’s expulsion.

Most conspicuously, Michael Manley, who had succeeded his father as leader of the PNP, assumed the persona of a dread, his appearance on the campaign trail never complete without his cane, purportedly a gift of the Ethiopian emperor and Rastafarian deity Haile Selassie.

A consummate showman with a glib tongue, Manley was in his element crisscrossing the island. Metaphorically chastising the wayward with his “rod of correction,” the PNP leader failed only to add that Emperor Selassie’s gift was an exact replica of the staff Moses used to smite the Red Sea, creating a corridor of land for the freed people to cross. Moses’ passage from the scene left the completion of the liberation project to his successor, Joshua, a moniker Manley assumed, his audiences chanting, “Lick dem, Joshua, lick dem; lick dem wid di rod of correction,” mimicking a popular song.

To Manley’s good electoral fortune, the Rastafarians had laid the groundwork for rounding out the exodus story, having previously labeled as “Pharaoh” his JLP counterpart, the hapless Prime Minister Shearer. Manley offered smoke in mirrors.  Shearer, his campaign equally vacuous and devoid of substance, countered with monotony and dullness.  When at curtain call the votes were counted, inevitably style had trumped boredom.(23) Manley, whose tomfoolery never fooled Rodney, may well have provided the prototype for Rodney’s Marxist extrapolation that events appearing against the huge canvass of Africa as tragedy reappear in the Caribbean as comedy.(24)

Soon after becoming prime minister, Manley undertook an exercise obligatory for leaders in those parts: he journeyed to Washington, D.C. On the sidelines of his official business in the United States, he addressed a popular forum. In the audience was Anthony Ferguson, a disciple of C. L. R. James, who had returned to the United States after an involuntary, Cold War-induced exile. At question time, Ferguson asked Manley about lifting the ban on Rodney. The prime minister, uncharacteristically tongue-tied, refused to entertain the inquiry.

Undaunted, Ferguson cornered Manley at a reception following the speech. Shearer, not he, had banned Rodney, a suddenly loquacious Manley now protested, under the cover of a tête-à-tête. He had not, the prime minister went on, personally “investigated the circumstances surrounding the affair,” and Rodney was free to apply for a visa to enter Jamaica.  “Then and only then will your case be examined,” Ferguson, in a letter to Rodney, who had returned to Tanzania after being expelled from Jamaica, quoted Manley as saying.

Manley, Ferguson went on, “added, though, that he had heard the ban was necessary because of your inciting of the people to action against the government. This he could not and would not stand for, as if such was the case, he concluded, ‘you know I eh go let anybody, particularly an outsider come in and disrupt my country.”(25) Shearer and the JLP, it seemed, had not exhausted Jamaican national chauvinism.

In the heady days before Rodney’s expulsion, the Rev. Henry reportedly had predicted that he would, by violent means if necessary, overthrow the government by 1972, the year he joined other erstwhile Black Power constituents in supporting Manley’s electoral victory. But Manley’s, or rather Joshua’s, vision of the promised land would not include Brother Wally, Henry’s one-time brethren—if the prime minister’s attitude to the idea of Rodney returning to Jamaica was any indication.

Notes

  1. O’Reilly, Racial Matters: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America, 1960-1972 (New York: Free Press. 1991).

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  2. United States National Archives (USNA), RG59, Box 2242, file JAM – A: Internal Security Review: Walter Anthony Rodney Background in Detail, August 1968, 3-4.

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  3. There is likely an error here, perhaps of transcription, or perhaps because the reporting agent mistook “revolutionary” for “reactionary.” Rodney would scarcely have organized a group of “reactionary” fellows—unless he was trying to spoof the intelligence services, which he likely knew were on his trail.

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  4. USNA, RG59, Box 2242, file JAM – A: Internal Security Review: Walter Anthony Rodney Background in Detail, August 1968, 4.

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  5. Ibid., 6.

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  6. Ibid., 1, 7.

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  7. Norman Girvan, “After Rodney: The Politics of Student Protest in Jamaica,” New World Quarterly, 4. 3 (1968), 59-68.

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  8. USNA, RG59, Box 2242, file JAM – A: Internal Security Review: Dr. Walter Anthony Rodney—Recent Activities, September 1968, 1-2.

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  9. Ibid., 1.

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  10. USNA, RG59, Box 2242, file JAM – A: Amembassy in Kingston to Department of State, November 15, 1968, 1, 7.

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  11. USNA, RG59, Box 2242, file Pol. 21: Amembassy Kingston to Department of State, October 18, 1968.

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  12. USNA, RG59, Box 2242, file JAM – A: Internal Security Review: Chronology of Events During October Disturbances, 1-2.

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  13. USNA, RG59, Box 2242, file Pol. 21: Amembassy Kingston to Department of State, October 16, 1968.

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  14. USNA, RG59, Box 2242, file JAM – A: Internal Security Review: Chronology of Events During October Disturbances, 2.

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  15. Anthony Payne, “The Rodney Riots in Jamaica: The Background and Significance of the Events of October 1968,” Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, 21, 2 (1983), 167.

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  16. On Rodney’s impact in Jamaica, see Rupert Charles Lewis, Walter Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), 85-123. For an overview of the rising, see Payne, “The Rodney Riots,” 158-174.

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  17. USNA, RG59, Box 2242, file JAM — A: Internal Security Review: Chronology of Events During October Disturbances,  2-3.

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  18. USNA, RG59, Box 2242, file Pol. 21: Amembassy Kingston to Department of State, October 16, 1968.

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  19. USNA, RG59, Box 2242, file JAM – A: Amembassy in Kingston to Department of State, November 15, 1968, 1.

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  20. Walter Rodney, “Jamaica Today, Bogle’s Reminder: A Statement from Brother Wally (Rodney) in Canada to all the Brothers in Jamaica,” 1. A modified version of this statement is included in Rodney’s collection of black power speeches, The Groundings with My Brothers (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications Ltd, 1969).

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  21. USNA, RG59, Box 2242, file JAM – A: Internal Security Review: Annex 2, 6-8.

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  22. USNA, RG59, Box 2242, file Pol. 21: Amembassy Kingston to Department of State, October 18, 1968.

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  23. On Jamaican politics and the rise of Manley, see Carl Stone, Class, Race and Political Behaviour in Urban Jamaica (Kingston: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1973); Carlene J. Edie, Democracy by Default: Dependency and Clientalism in Jamaica (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1991).

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  24. Karl Marx had said that historical events occur twice, first as tragedy and then as farce.

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  25. Atlanta University Center Archives, Rodney Papers, Box 2, Anthony Ferguson file: Ferguson to Rodney, November 17, 1972 (emphasis in original).

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ATC 120, January-February 2006