[News] History Will Absolve Her: Little Known Revolutionary Women
news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Oct 14 11:09:32 EDT 2016
History Will Absolve Her: Little Known Revolutionary Women
October 12, 2016
There is a ‘lost history’ of radical women and women’s organizing in the
Caribbean for social and economic justice that changed our landscape for
more than a century.
When we think of great leaders, we think of presidents, prime ministers
and heads of revolutionary movements. In our collective memory, we
sometimes forget the immense sacrifices of left organizers for social,
economic and political change. Yet, not all revolutionaries and martyrs
Working class, non-white, activist, and left women from the Global South
suffer from the greatest invisibility. There is a ‘lost history’ of
radical women and women’s organizing in the Caribbean for social and
economic justice that changed our landscape for more than a century.
In what will forever be remembered as the July 26 Movement, a young
Fidel Castro led a failed attack against the Moncada army barracks in
Santiago de Cuba in an attempt to inspire a national uprising against
dictator Batista. While many of his comrades were slaughtered in the
action, the passionate and idealistic Fidel, in 1954 wrote a lengthy
critique of capitalism in the Isle of Pines prison, decrying the social
and economic ills of Cuba under dictatorial rule instead of making a
defense regarding the charges brought against him.
In a speech that has been remembered for one of its precious lines,
“History will absolve me,” Fidel Castro joined the distinguished
tradition of revolutionaries who defended themselves in court by
advancing their radical political beliefs.
One year before Fidel would be absolved by history, Claudia Jones, made
her defense in a U.S. court challenging the imprisonment she faced
because of her communist beliefs.
Claudia Jones was a prominent Caribbean radical organizer and thinker to
communities in the U.S. and U.K. Jones combined Marxism-Leninism,
decolonization, anti-imperialist and anti-sexist politics to make sense
of the social and political situation of her day. Carol Boyce Davies
places Jones’ lifelong revolutionary work into the canon of left
radicalism that has too widely been interpreted in androcentric terms.
Even though we can consider Claudia Jones a "female political and
intellectual equivalent of C.L.R James, "her omission from historical
narratives, including left scholarship and analysis, has served to
undermine the urgent theorizing of questions concerning women in general
and Black women in the First and Third Worlds.
In 1953, under the Smith Act in the U.S., Claudia Jones delivered a
speech to the court at her trial for “subversive activities” aimed at
overthrowing the U.S. government. She was sentenced to a year in jail,
and afterward, was deported. Her speech to the court was one of
rhetorical brilliance. In a section of her speech, she questions the
logic of her sentencing through a series of questions that illustrate
the irrationality and oppressive character of the charges brought
She expresses her political beliefs against the war in Korea, against
the alienation of workers under capitalism and her support for freedom
of speech. She described the trial as a “trial of ideas.” Jones stands
firm in her convictions fearlessly, "I say these things not with any
idea that what I say will influence your sentence of me. For, even with
all the power your Honor holds, how can you decide to mete out justice
for the only act to which I proudly plead guilty, and one, moreover,
which by your own prior rulings constitutes no crime—that of holding
Before Fidel and his case against the economic and social misery of
Cuba, before Claudia and her communist convictions, Elma Francois, a
domestic worker and labor organizer, on sedition charges, defended
herself. Francois was born in St. Vincent and migrated to Trinidad and
Tobago as a worker in 1919. She began as a domestic worker.
She joined the Trinidad Workingman’s Association. Her militancy grounded
in Garveyite consciousness and working class politics put her at odds
with the leadership of Captain A. A. Cipriani who led the TWA. Later,
Elma Francois founded the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association
(NWCSA), a Marxist-oriented labor organization that sought the
empowerment of primarily ‘Negro people’ but recruited non-Afro members
What made this organization stand out from many other organizations in
Latin America and the Caribbean at the time was Elma Francois’
commitment to the notion that there should be no sex separation in the
executive structure of the NWCSA. She was vehemently against the
establishment of a “women’s arm/auxiliary” as a substitution for greater
equality in the labor leadership.
Elma Francois was the first woman in the history of Trinidad and Tobago
tried for sedition in 1938. During her self-defense, Francois outlined
the outlook of the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association and its
commitment to the development and empowerment of the oppressed ‘Negro
people’ of the West Indies. She then drew on examples of international
struggles and discerned what is most to her cause, she cited, for
example, land struggles in Kenya and workers' mobilizations in the U.K.
More poignantly, she argued that workers are concerned with transforming
their material conditions above all else, "I said that hundreds of
workers were being placed in jail. I said that jail sentences and
executions do not solve our problems. It is only by organized unity that
we can … better our conditions … I said workers of the world were not
prepared to fight in any way but for bread, peace and liberty." Unlike
Claudia Jones, eventually, she was found not guilty.
The parallels among Francois, Jones and Fidel are as remarkable as they
are unsurprising. All these revolutionaries on trial linked their causes
to broader struggles of workers against exploitation of the ruling
classes internationally and expressed their political beliefs fearlessly
in defense of intellectual and political freedom. In this sense then,
Claudia Jones and Elma Francois belong to a long radical tradition of
revolutionary self-defense and are deserving of historical absolution.
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