By Larry Smith
Thursday, April 9,
significant coverage in the American media, the 50th anniversary of the march
in Selma, Alabama that led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act went almost
unnoticed in the Bahamas.
And it’s a safe bet that most Bahamians who didn’t actually live through those
tumultuous years are clueless about what happened in their own country at the
same time. Hint—the two experiences are closely related.
The substance of these experiences was the suppression of democracy - denying
citizens of African descent their right to vote. In the US these citizens were
a minority. In the Bahamas, they were the majority. The ancestors of both
groups were enslaved for centuries.
The 15th Amendment to the US constitution, ratified in 1870, after the civil
war, prohibited states from denying the right to vote based on “race, color or
previous condition of servitude.” This superseded laws that had directly
prohibited black voting.
"As a result, in the former Confederate States...hundreds of thousands of
recently-freed slaves registered to vote,” according to the US Justice
Department website. "The extension of the franchise was strongly
resisted...in a climate in which violence could be used to depress black voter
Southern states passed laws that included poll taxes, literacy tests, vouchers
of "good character," and disqualification for "crimes of moral
turpitude." These were designed to exclude black citizens by allowing
white officials to apply them selectively.
By 1910 nearly all black citizens in the former Confederate states were
disenfranchised. The long struggle to restore those rights was one of the major
focuses of the US civil rights movement, which was led by Rev Martin Luther
Selma is a county seat with a county-wide majority-black population, but in
1961 only 130 blacks were registered to vote. When a Selma judge banned public
gatherings focusing on civil rights, a number of black organisations joined to
protest the injunction.
Following a series of violent police attacks on peaceful protesters, and more
than 3,000 arrests, some 600 ordinary people attempted to march from Selma to
the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery on March 7 1965.
The marchers made their way across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they faced a
blockade of state police who ordered them to disperse. Cheered on by white
onlookers. the police attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas. Mounted
officers chased retreating marchers and continued to beat them.
In all, 17 people were injured by police and hospitalised, including future
Congressman John Lewis. The incident became known as Bloody Sunday. At the time
Lewis said: ‘‘I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and
can’t send troops to Selma.’’
The infamous bridge was named in "honour" of a Confederate general.
Edmund Pettus was one of the organisers of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan
and he maintained a virulent opposition to the constitutional amendments that
elevated former slaves to the status of free citizens.
Along with numerous other acts of violence and terrorism against non-violent
protesters, the unprovoked Selma attacks persuaded President Lynden Johnson to
push for effective voting rights legislation. And the Voting Rights Act was
signed into law in August of the same year, in the presence of civil rights
This past weekend, President Barack Obama had this to say about the 1965 event:
"In one afternoon 50 years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the
stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny
of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a
Baptist preacher – met on this bridge. It was not a clash of armies, but a
clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America.”
Similar events happened in the Bahamas for similar reasons at about the same
time. There was just as much drama, but much less violence.
In 1962, despite polling more votes overall, the predominantly black
Progressive Liberal Party actually lost two seats in the 33-seat House of
Assembly, while the mostly white UBP won 20 and four independents were elected.
Much of the blame for that debacle fell on the way constituency boundaries had
been fixed by the UBP - a process condemned as gerrymandering.
Retired governor-general Sir Arthur Foulkes told me he met Dr King on his first
visit to the Bahamas in the late 50s/early 60s: "He came at the invitation
of a mutual friend, Basil J. Sands, a young black Bahamian real estate agent.
"It was in Basil's office that several of us, including Randol
Fawkes, had a conversation with Dr King. We talked about our struggle
against racism in the Bahamas and listened as he outlined his non-violence
philosophy. He was an inspiration to all of us who were in the
progressive movement at the time."
In 1963 the young leader of the PLP - Lynden Pindling - took part
in the March on Washington, when Dr King delivered his famous 'I have a Dream'
Inspired by the dramatic events in America, Pindling and the more
activist members of the PLP decided on “symbolic but shocking actions” inside
and outside the House of Assembly - only a month or so after the Selma outrage
The issue at hand - according to Pindling’s biographer, Michael Craton - was
redistricting, and the related problem of getting an accurate and complete
register of voters before the next election. There was also a perceived need to
“demystify” the power of Bay Street by a successful challenge.
A parliamentary debate on the constituency commission report took place in
April 1965, and a core of PLP activists led by Pindling, Milo Butler and Cecil
Wallace Whitfield planned a major demonstration to coincide with the debate.
At the appointed time Pindling threw the parliamentary mace out of the window
to a crowd of about 3,000 waiting below, while Butler hurled the speaker’s
hourglass. “The effect was electric”, Craton wrote, as the PLP members walked
out of the chamber and staged a sit-in on Bay Street.
Magistrate John Bailey (who is now retired in Ireland) was called upon to read
the riot act, and - to avoid a confrontation - Pindling led his supporters to
the Southern Recreation Ground where they held a mass rally.
The mace incident - later dubbed Black Tuesday - served the same purpose as
Bloody Sunday in Selma - "bringing attention to the fragile state of
democracy,” as Craton wrote in Pindling’s biography.
Although this dramatic action provoked a major split in the PLP, which lasted
right up to the 1967 election, Pindling went on to become the country's first
black premier in a razor-thin vote.
The following year, in a snap election, the PLP were returned to office in a
landslide. And the rest, as they say, is history. Bloody Sunday and Black
Tuesday had similar meaning for both Americans and Bahamians.
Larry Smith writes a column called
Tough Call every Wednesday for the Nassau Tribune. A former reporter and
editor, he operates a communications agency and book distributor in Nassau (www.bahamasmedia.com). Smith has a
degree in political science and journalism from the University of Miami. He can
be reached at email@example.com