Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Bahamian Independence: A Religious Perspective

Today--July 10th--the Bahamas is celebrating its 34th year of Independence. Those of us who live here, of course, are familiar with the legacy of Sir Lynden Pindling and his colleagues in the PLP--the first organized political party in the Bahamas--as well as their many contributions to the founding of this nation. Today I'd like to take a few moments to reflect on the numerous contributions of Bahamian religion and clergy to the popular movement that led to Bahamian Independence.

The religious faith of black Bahamians and other Afro-Caribbean peoples has long played a significant role in challenging the injustices of five-hundred years of slavery and colonialism. From the earliest days of slavery, religion often inspired slave uprisings and revolts against white plantation owners. Most slave resistance, though, tended to be more subtle—stealing food, procrastination on the job, refusal to give up African beliefs and customs, individual escapes, and formation of fugitive slave communities in the mountains. By the late eighteenth century, mass conversion of Caribbean slaves and freed blacks to Protestant Christianity provided new avenues of resistance to slavery and racial discrimination. Much to the consternation of British colonial officials, non-conformist churches—especially the Baptists—often provided sanctuary for runaway slaves as well as allowing slaves and freed blacks alike to become full-members, hold church offices, and even become preachers. Eventually, Baptist led slave resistance in Jamaica became so violent that it significantly hastened the legal decision to end slavery in all of the British colonies. Following emancipation, religion continued to fuel struggles for racial equality and, later, independence from British colonial rule. This tradition of religious resistance—referred to by some scholars as black radicalism—reached its climax in the Bahamas with the achievement of black majority rule (1967) and Bahamian independence (1973).

The Bahamas’ journey to black majority rule and independence began in 1935, when the National Baptist Convention in the United States began to provide scholarships for Bahamian Baptists to prepare for the ministry at the historically black American Baptist Seminary in Nashville. Having experienced southern racism and observed the early precursors to the U.S. civil rights movement during their studies, Bahamian graduates such as H.W. Brown and R.E. Cooper, Sr. returned to the Bahamas determined to right the injustices faced by the black majority in their own country. These Baptist pastors were amongst the first supporters of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), which was formed in 1953 to challenge the political and economic power of the white Nassau merchant class known as the Bay Street Boys. Borrowing from the rhetoric and tactics of leaders in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement as well as nationalist movements against British colonial rule in Africa and the Caribbean, the PLP and its Baptist allies gradually gained the support of the black Bahamian populace they claimed to represent. Using the scriptures to show how God helps the weak to triumph over the mighty, fiery Baptist preachers encouraged unity and solidarity amongst black Bahamians while the leadership of Baptist women doubled the size of the black electorate through their efforts to achieve women’s suffrage.

By late 1966, the United Bahamian Party (UBP)—representing the interests of the Bay Street Boys—caved into growing pressure from the PLP and called for new parliamentary elections to be held on January 10, 1967. They hoped that by scheduling the elections shortly after the Christmas holidays the black electorate would be too distracted with celebrations to adequately prepare. Instead, the religiously zealous PLP leadership quickly pointed out that election day coincided with the day of Passover, the “tenth day of the first month,” when Pharaoh ordered the Israelites to be released from slavery in Egypt (Ex 12:1-3, 31). Such biblical imagery coupled with the theme song from the recently released movie Exodus and the U.S. civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” enabled the PLP’s campaign to build enough momentum to achieve an election night tie with the UBP. During the night, the PLP brokered a deal with the largely black Labour Party to form a coalition government, thus ushering in a new era of black majority rule. Years later, Baptist leader and PLP stalwart Doris Johnson recalled: “Thus it was that on ‘the tenth day of the first month,’ black Bahamians emerged from the centuries-old domination of a white power group and crossed over to the promised land of ‘milk and honey,’ on which they could grow more and more able to shape their destiny. They could walk tall and proud in their own land as never before, and humble too, as their deeply religious sense attributed their Glory (sic) in victory, to the mysterious ways of their God.” Once in power, the PLP and its Baptist allies continued their struggle for the equality of black Bahamians, culminating in independence from Great Britain on July 10, 1973.

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