[News] History Will Absolve Her: Little Known Revolutionary Women

Anti-Imperialist News 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 
are equal.

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 
against her.

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 
Communist ideas"

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 
as well.

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.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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