A Vote is a Terrible Thing to Waste

The next time you can’t be bothered to vote, consider this:

– More that 40 million Americans participated in the recently concluded Democratic Party primaries and only a handful of votes separated Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the end.
– American women won the right to vote less than 90 years ago
– Black Americans’ right to vote was restricted by various state laws until the 1960s.
– In Jamaica, only those who paid significant taxes or owned significant property could vote before Britain granted the island “adult suffrage” in 1944.

What these facts do not reflect is the bloodshed and pain involved in the evolution of democracy.

You may have read in school about the women who were beaten for staging protests in Washington or the black men who were murdered in Mississippi for organizing voter registration drives. Or you may be old enough to remember the Civil Rights marches of the Sixties, when the authorities used fire hoses, clubs and dogs to disperse the marchers. You may even have been alive the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

By then I was living in Canada, and I was very much aware of what was going on in the United States. I remember how segregated American society was back then, and I recall some of those memories in my book, “The Color of Ice: A Canadian Serenade.”

But the memories that come most sharply into focus as I grow older are from my early childhood, when I lived in Jamaica. The island was a British Colony then, and was ruled by surrogates of the British government, Jamaicans of mostly European descent and British expatriates.

As a small child, I did not realize the historical significance of the events taking place.

My mother told me stories about Marcus Garvey. She told me how Garvey came to Guy’s Hill when she was a teenager, and how she and a male cousin went to hear him speak. When Garvey talked about the global destiny of the black race, my mother’s cousin decided to heckle him.

Garvey paused and looked around.

“Brothers, you hear a noise?” he asked.

The crowd murmured assent.

“Sisters, you hear a noise?”

Again, the crowd murmured.

“Oh,” said Garvey. “ It’s that mildew-face boy talking!”

The crowd roared its derision and my mother’s cousin slunk away.

Then there was Busta – who became Sir Alexander Bustamante, a Jamaican National Hero. Back then, Busta was regarded as somewhat eccentric. I mean, wasn’t his name really William Alexander Clark? I understood that he claimed to have been adopted by a Spanish nobleman named Bustamante and that’s why he changed his name. He was Aunt Florrie’s cousin, and came to see her sometimes.

(Aunt Florrie was married to my granduncle, Rev. W. T. Graham. But back to Busta.)

Well over six feet tall, he was lanky and hawk-faced, with a bush of gray curls at the back of his head. His toughness was so legendary there was a jawbreaker candy named after him – “Bustamante backbone.”

He formed the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union. And his cousin, Norman Washington Manley (who is also a Jamaican National Hero) formed the National Workers Union. They founded political parties and competed against each other for decades to control the island’s government.

Those two men were largely responsible for getting Jamaicans from all walks of life the right to vote.

My family loved Busta but revered Manley. After all, Manley was a Rhodes Scholar and such a brilliant barrister that “The Daily Gleaner” published transcripts of his court cases. I can still recall my father chuckling as he read one of Manley’s clever cross-examinations.

Earlier, when I was only four or five years old, I remember crowds singing:

We will follow Bustamante till we die!

And I remember the alarums that went out as Bustamante stormed about the island in the late 1930s, agitating the workers. I heard there were riots, and I remember seeing the cook’s diminishing back as she strode down the hill one morning, when we were living in Portland.

Bustamante had called a general strike, someone said.

I have a memory of trucks full of “special constables.” And I overheard one of my father’s friends telling how a “special constable” shot a rioter with a .303, “and it tore the poor man’s leg completely off.”

Then World War II broke out, and Busta was imprisoned for causing disturbances during wartime.

I vaguely remember headlines in the Daily Gleaner proclaiming “Black Friday” (or was it Black Saturday? “Black” something, anyway). That was the day Bustamante led a mob to the lunatic asylum on Windward Road, causing such turmoil that inmates escaped and wreaked havoc. But I don’t know whether that was what led to his imprisonment.

I also read or heard a story about Bustamante leading a mob through Kingston and the governor sending troops to stop him. For reasons no one has ever explained to me, Bustamante was wearing a jacket but no shirt, and when the troops leveled their carbines at his mob, he grabbed the jacket by the lapels and bared his bony chest theatrically.

“Shoot me, but spare my people,” he said.

Obviously, the troops didn’t shoot, because Busta lived on to become Jamaica’s most revered Prime Minister, leading the country to independence, and even being knighted by the Queen of England.

So, if you’re tempted to stay home on Election Day, think of people like Busta who dared death to give you the right to vote.

George Graham is a Jamaican-born journalist and author who has worked as a reporter in the Caribbean and North America for more than half a century. He lives in Lakeland, Florida. His new book, “The Color of Ice: A Canadian Serenade,” is available at www.publishamerica.com/shopping/index.htm. His earlier books are at http://stores.lulu.com/georgeg.

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George Graham