The Rodney rebellion: Black Power in Jamaica

In 1968 Walter Rodney was teaching in Jamacia. There were important changes taking place on the island with the growth of radical politics and Black Power. At only 26, Rodney rejected the privileges of university life and committed to speaking with the poor. Chinedu Chukwudinma continues the story of Rodney’s revolutionary life.

By Chinedu Chukwudinma

On the morning of 16 October 1968, 900 students gathered at the University of the West Indies (UWI) campus and began marching to Kingston. They were angered by the Jamaican government’s decision to expel their beloved professor Walter Rodney from the island. They did not get far before the police tear-gassed and beat them into retreat. But the students returned more determined that afternoon. Now they had thousands of Rastafarians, working class and unemployed youths in their ranks. When they invaded Kingston, they did what the young people of Paris, Prague and the black neighbourhoods of America had done that spring and summer of 1968. In Jamaica, they set fire to 15 buses and looted American and Canadian companies, chanting “Black Power” until dawn.

In part, Rodney’s Black Power advocacy had inspired Jamaica’s youth. However, the real significance of the ‘Rodney riots’ went beyond demands for his reinstatement. It lay in the poverty and political exclusion of Jamaicans and the rise of black consciousness among the youth. The young protesters, like most Jamaicans, descended from the thousands of African slaves that British colonialism had transported to be exploited on the sugar cane plantations of Jamaica for over two centuries. Their ancestors resisted slavery, but never managed to take control of the island’s wealth from their masters. In the century after emancipation in 1838 many of them became wage-labourers on the declining British sugar estates, while others became poor peasants. The luckier ones later found work on the docks and in the Western-owned banana and bauxite industries of the 20th century. These workers unleashed a wave of strikes and protests against colonialism in response to the suffering caused by the Great Depression of the 1930s. But the great labour unrest of the 1930s, which also swept the entire British West Indies, sadly ended in defeat.

The unrest nevertheless forced Britain to open its administration to the tiny number of educated Jamaicans, who inherited state-power after independence in 1962. The new rulers prospered under the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) government, through the substantial foreign investment they received from Western companies. They were white, brown, Lebanese, and Chinese but had very few blacks among their ranks—a glaring disparity given that 90 per cent of Jamaican citizens were the descendants of African slaves. Thus, freedom from Britain meant nothing for most Jamaicans. Rural poverty and unemployment on the decaying estates forced many to migrate to Kingston, often to join the ranks of an estimated 150,000 slum dwellers.[1]

In the 1950s and 1960s, Black Nationalism gave expression to the anger of poor black youths at the political elite and the multinationals. The radical labour movement of the 1930s had been defeated. The JLP and its rival, the People’s National Party (PNP), had co-opted the trade unions and turned them into electoral machines. The corruption of the trade unions and the absence of alternative organisational models partly explain the adventurism and tendency to engage in conspiratorial plots that characterised some of Jamaica’s Black Nationalist movements. In 1960, for instance, the Jamaican authorities and the CIA uncovered the plot of an Afrocentric evangelical sect, led by Reverend Claudius Henry, to overthrow the Jamaican Government. Three years after the Henry Rebellion, the state attacked a much larger black Christian movement, the Rastafarians.

Originating in the 1930s as reaction to British rule, under the influence of Protestant religious leaders who preached African pride and political figures such as Marcus Garvey who advocated that black people should go ‘Back to Africa’, by the 1960s, thousands of black youth had converted to Rastafarianism and adopted a countercultural lifestyle that ranged from ganja smoking and dreadlock growing, to squatting and small-scale farming. Squatting made them the subject of evictions and police brutality. In 1963, six Rastafarians attacked a petrol station on the Coral Gardens property that resulted in the killing of nine people, including two policemen. The assault was an act of revenge against the landlords and the government’s attempts to evict squatters to repurpose the land for tourism. The police and the army retaliated by arresting 150 innocent Rastafarians.

Rastafarianism was a threat to the ruling class because it criticised its multiracial composition and its lavish Western lifestyle. Rastafarianism rested upon the belief that black people were the captives of Babylon, an evil system of corruption and oppression that western civilisation had created, which the Jamaican elite upheld. It proclaimed that Black people could only find salvation by returning “home” to Africa—which they called ‘Zion’, the promised land. For many Rastafarians, the notion of repatriation was less about an actual return to Africa than a return at the level of consciousness, which included the restitution of African pride and the adoption of a way of life that was antagonistic to western culture. The Rastafarians preached love, self-respect and freedom from the shackles of mental and physical slavery for those of African descent who suffered from the legacies of slavery and colonisation. They offered black youths an ideological and spiritual framework that helped them understand their suffering and revolt against it.

Daily Gleaner, 16 October 1968.

The elite sometimes resorted to peaceful means when trying to accommodate the agitation around black consciousness. In 1964, the JLP repatriated the corpse of Marcus Garvey and honoured him as a national hero. The elite knew that Garvey inspired many Jamaicans who valued their African heritage. In 1914, while he still lived in Jamaica, Garvey had established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)–the largest ever Black Nationalist organisation–which he then set up in Harlem, New York when he moved there in 1916. The UNIA exerted a strong influence on the emergence of Black Nationalism in the United States but as an organisation it declined after the American Government imprisoned and deported Garvey to Jamaica in 1927. Thirteen years later, Garvey died a poor and forgotten man in London. But Rastafarians remembered him as a martyr and celebrated his legacy.

In 1966, the JLP invited Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, whom the Rastafarians worshipped as the Messiah of black people and the incarnation of God. The Rastafarians revered Ethiopia because it was never colonised by Europe—it symbolised a free and independent Africa. They furthermore regarded the 1500-year-old Ethiopian Coptic Church as the custodian of an authentic Christianity that remained uncorrupted by western influences. So, when news of the emperor’s visit spread across the island, crowds rushed to greet Selassie on the tarmac breaking through all security barriers. Some believe the unofficial parades celebrating Selassie’s arrival were even bigger than those on Independence Day. Whether this was true or not, the visit increased the legitimacy and following of the Rastafari. The ruling class, however, feared that Black Nationalism was proving too difficult to control. The growing influence of the American Black Power movement in Jamaica added to their panic.[2]

In 1968, the JLP banned all Black Power literature from the USA, fearful of the extent to which the ideas of the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X were inspiring Jamaican students and academics. It resented the formation of a militant alliance between radical black intellectuals and the masses. That year, the Jamaican ruling party also monitored the activities of a 26-year-old lecturer named Walter Rodney who had arrived on the island in January. What did Rodney do to get expelled in October? And how had he won the hearts and minds of the masses during his short stay on the island?

Groundings with my brothers

Eight months prior to his banning from Jamaica, Rodney was appointed lecturer in African history at the UWI. His students admired his kindness and modesty. Rodney was different from the academics that returned from London with dandy shirts and fake British accents. Rodney wore dashikis-a West African form of dress-an Afro haircut and spoke English with a Guyanese twang, yet he had also earned a PhD. Unlike his ivory-tower colleagues, Rodney refused to live on the UWI campus and settled in West Kingston to be closer to the poor and oppressed. He believed the role of the radical intellectual was to help the masses win their struggles and he intended to use his knowledge for that purpose.

Daily Gleaner, 17 October 1968.

People respected Rodney for his public lectures on Black Power at the Students’ Union. He was a talented speaker who attracted dozens of listeners on campus. After one of his speeches, Rodney made friends with three Rastafarians who then connected him to grassroots activist circles and the masses. One of them, Jerry Small, had turned his back on his middle-class upbringing to live among the poor. He invited Rodney to the groundings—the informal religious gathering that Rastafarians organised in the shantytowns of Kingston. Rodney enjoyed listening to the activists he met at those meetings. Among them, the Reverend Claudius Henry left a big impression on him. The reverend had served a six-year prison sentence for conspiring to overthrow the government in 1960. Rodney visited Henry’s Pan-African church and was struck by what he saw. He wrote:

In Kemp’s Hill, in the middle of a most depressed area, which is the Prime Minister’s constituency, Rev Henry has gathered together a number of black brothers and sisters, and they have turned themselves into an independent black economic community. In less than a year they built themselves an attractive church and several dwelling houses, all of concrete for they make the concrete blocks.”[3]

This passage highlighted Rodney’s support for the attempts of ordinary working people to manage their own affairs when abandoned by the state. Yet, he thought that the black masses could achieve more than build a community—they could rule the island. He was ready to speak to them about Black Power and its relevance to Jamaica and the Caribbean.

According to Rodney’s friend Robert Hill, leaflets were never distributed to promote the groundings. Yet two to three hundred people came to hear Rodney speak on African history and Jamaican politics around a campfire on Sunday mornings.[4] The JLP, which governed the island, saw Rodney as a Guyanese troublemaker and spied on him. Rodney did not join nor build any organisation. He was just an intellectual interacting with the masses, yet the Jamaican ruling class felt threatened by his message of Black Power. Rodney spoke of Black Power as an ideology and movement against the oppression of black people by whites under capitalism. He defined Black Power in the West Indies as: “(1) The break with imperialism, which is historically white racist; (2) the assumption of power by the black masses in the islands; (3) the cultural reconstruction of society in the image of blacks”.[5] Although Rodney viewed Black Power as a universal call for self-determination, he thought its relevance to the West Indies differed from that in America. In the United States, the program of most radical black leaders reflected the position of an African American racial minority who faced employment and housing discrimination and police brutality from mainly white police officers. The principal theoretician of Black Power, Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) argued for blacks in the US to take political and economic control of their communities away from the police and the state.[6] Carmichael’s views would later radicalise and he would join the Black Panthers, who advocated a socialist revolution in 1968.

Unlike in America, African descendants were the majority in most of the ex-British West Indies and suffered oppression from both blacks and other non-white peoples. So Rodney theorised Black Power in a more radical way than Carmichael, to challenge the domination of what he called the “white imperialist system”.[7] This referred to the collusion between the local black elite and the Western multinational companies that exploited workers and robbed the Caribbean of its raw materials. Rodney also anchored his Black Power in internationalism by linking the struggles of Jamaicans to liberation movements in the Global South fighting colonialism and imperialism. Moreover, he argued that West Indian Black Power concerned Indians and Africans alike. In his homeland, Guyanese Indians outnumbered Africans and they made up half of the population of Trinidad and Tobago. Both peoples, he maintained, shared a history of bondage and oppression at the hands of imperialism. The British Empire had bought Africans as slaves, and then shipped Indians as indentured labour. Now both communities endured poverty and saw power denied to them.[8]

Daily Gleaner, 17 October 1968.

In Jamaica, Rodney criticised the ruling class for flaunting the myth of a harmonious multiracial Jamaican society. He despised its national motto, “Out of Many, One People” for obscuring the fact that a small multi-racial elite ruled over an African majority. For Rodney, the elite feared above all the prospect of Jamaicans organising politically around their African identity. Therefore, many of his speeches emphasised the need for blacks to reconnect with their African heritage. Rodney aspired to dismantle the inferiority complex that slavery, colonialism and racism instilled among blacks by representing Africa as primitive and uncivilised. He told black students in San Francisco in 1968: “We are the only group in the world who deny ourselves preferring to be known as Negros… To know ourselves we must learn about African history”. Rodney had a similar message for his Jamaican audience. At the groundings, he spoke at length on the great empires of Ethiopia, Kush and Benin. The empirical evidence he presented in his lectures strengthened the religious claims that Rastafarians held on to the grandeur of ancient African civilisations. The Rastafarians nicknamed him ‘the African doctor’ because of his knowledge of African history.

Although Rodney argued that history was a crucial weapon for mobilising black people, he thought its importance was secondary to the tactics and strategy of revolution. What was the correct revolutionary strategy for Jamaica? Rodney grappled with this question that weighed so heavily on his mind. He had reservation on whether the Jamaican masses were willing to support armed struggle against their ruling class. “I doubt whether the situation is explosive”, he wrote in letter to his wife. While Rodney admired Che Guevara’s teaching on guerrilla warfare, he knew that this strategy could not be blindly applied to the Jamaican context, even though it had proved successful in many parts of the Global South. Guevara himself had warned revolutionaries about the impossibly of waging an effective guerrilla war without securing the support of the masses of workers and peasants.

Instead, Rodney took from Guevara’s life experience the need to agitate for more concrete action. “All that matters”, he wrote, “is the question of action: determined, informed and scientific action against imperialism and its cohorts”. Where did theory fit in this picture? Rodney seldom mentioned his affinity with Marxism in his speeches at the groundings. Perhaps, he did not want to alienate the Rastafarians around him who were hostile to socialism. Rodney did celebrate the emergence of a rank-and-file workers’ movement that staged strikes without the support of the state co-opted unions. Yet the workers figured as only one of the revolutionary classes that he identified. He did not view their struggles against capital in Jamaica as central to the revolution. Instead, he placed most of his revolutionary faith in the unemployed black youth.

Walter Rodney, The Groundings with my Brothers (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1969).

In one of the lectures he gave at the Montreal’s Black Writers Conference in October 1968, Rodney spoke with passion about the Jamaican youth’s growing readiness to fight: “Throughout the country, black youth are becoming aware of the possibilities of unleashing armed struggle in their own interest. For those who have eyes to see, there is already evidence of the beginning of resistance to the violence of our oppressors”. The Jamaican government barred Rodney from entering Jamaica upon his return from the conference. Unfortunately, the Rodney Riots that ensued failed to reinstate him as the police beat the protesters into retreat and occupied the UWI campus for several days. While the riots appeared as a moment of unity between middle-class students, the unemployed and working-class youths, they failed to produce a long-lasting mass movement in Jamaica. The sheer brutality of the government’s repression ultimately demoralised the Jamaican masses.

Caribbean Black Power instead peaked in 1970 with the Trinidadian revolution that almost overthrew President Eric Williams. Although they were defeated, the Trinidadian workers proved to be the locus of power—their strikes paralysed the economy and fuelled the anti-government protests. Rodney did not foresee this potential for working class struggle when discussing Black Power in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, Jamaican Black Nationalism was dragged into the party rivalry between the JLP and the People’s National Party, cynically described as “gun politics”.[11] Both parties financed gangs to suppress rival supporters and to win swing constituencies. By the 1980s, the turf wars had divided and absorbed the once-radical ghetto youths. Contrary to what Rodney believed at the time, the youths did not have the coherence and the power to lead the struggle.

Despite the failure of Black Power, Rodney’s activism in Jamaica is still remembered today in reggae songs and activist circles. At only 26 years of age, Rodney had galvanised the oppressed masses and frightened the political establishment. News of his exploits in Jamaica reached two Afro-Guyanese activists, Jessica and Eric Huntley, who owned a radical bookshop in London. In 1969, they met Rodney and published his speeches on Black Power under the title The Groundings With My Brothers. In his pamphlet, Rodney asserted that the Jamaican government was wrong to believe that his expulsion from the island would stifle the masses. “This act”, he concluded, “will not delay its day of Judgment.”[12]His faith in the self-activity of the masses would remain with him throughout the rest of his life.

Chinedu Chukwudinma is a socialist activist and writer based in London. He writes on African politics, popular struggles, and the history of working-class resistance on the continent and is a member of ROAPE’s editorial board. 

Please click here and here for parts one and two of Chukwudinma’s A Rebel’s Guide to Walter Rodney.

Images: Naomi Oppenheim The Banning of a Man and the Making of a Book: The Walter Rodney Affair, 1968 (27 September, 2019).


[1] Payne, Anthony, “The Rodney Riots In Jamaica: The background and significance of the events of October 1968”, Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 1983, p60.

[2] For context on the Rodney Riots, see Payne, 1983, pp.158-174 or Lewis, Rupert, 1998b,Walter Rodney: 1968 Revisited”, Press University of the West Indies, pp 12-22.

[3] Rodney quoted in Lewis, 1998b, p25.

[4] Robert Hill in Chung Clairmont (ed.), Walter A. Rodney: A Promise of Revolution, (Monthly Review Press, 2012), pp65-66.

[5] Walter Rodney, The Groundings with my Brothers, (Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1969), p38.

[6] Note that Stokely views on Black Power radicalised after 1969 and co-founder of the Black Panthers, Huey Newton argued for a socialist revolution in America.

[7] Rodney, 1969, pp.41

[8] See Rodney, 1969, pp25-27 and pp38-41.

[9] Lewis, 1998b, p38.

[10] Rodney, 1969, pp74.


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