Sir Arthur Foulkes: A Father of the Nation at the 40th
A moving and fitting prelude to midnight on the 40th anniversary of independence would be a group of young Bahamians reciting the Preamble to the Constitution which begins: “Whereas four hundred and eighty-one years ago the rediscovery of this family of islands, rocks and cays heralded the rebirth of the New World”.
Many of us are familiar with the poetic relish which introduces the supreme law of the land, a statement of our democratic convictions, inclusive of a charter of freedoms and rights.
There will be one personage even more familiar with the Preamble and the document it introduces. Sir Arthur Foulkes, the eighth Bahamian governor general, drafted the original preamble for the 1969 Constitution.
Though modified for inclusion in the independence Constitution, the heart and thrust of the Preamble flowed from the imagination of one of the modern Bahamas’ more prolific scribes.
School children in the U.S. read about that nation’s founders and constitutional fathers, admiring and honoring them through film, statues and folklore.
In Sir Arthur, the nation enjoys a living father and founder. That he is head of state at the 40th anniversary of independence is a happy and extraordinary privilege for the nation. Other than Arthur D. Hanna, there is no other living Bahamian more suited to preside over our independence celebrations.
When the tricolor gold, black and aquamarine flag is raised against the backdrop of the near midnight sky at Clifford Park next week, invoking independence eve 40 years ago, Sir Arthur will rightly preside.
Though one may only guess at the thoughts and emotions that will fill his heart and mind, history will be smiling with him, and the sovereign, democratic and free commonwealth of which he helped to give birth and stability. The nation, like Sir Arthur, has more than survived. Both have flourished.
Born at the farthest end of the archipelago in Mathew Town, Inagua, Sir Arthur’s Bahamian vision encompassed racial, social and economic equality for all Bahamians. He remains a central figure and an icon of the struggle for majority rule and independence.
He was a founding member of the National Committee for Positive Action, an internal pressure group which proved pivotal in the struggle, radicalizing a sometimes cautious PLP.
As early as 1959 the committee held a debate on independence. The NCPA is a case history in political organizing, with no similar group as successful in modern Bahamian history.
Sir Arthur was one the movement’s key strategic thinkers, and certainly its best wordsmith, penning much of the poetry and prose which moved a people and instructed colonialists and others of the rightness and urgency of the cause of freedom in The Bahamas.
With a body of work that includes a career in journalism, memorable speeches – his own and many he wrote for others – as well as half a century as a columnist, Sir Arthur has been one of the country’s leading public intellectuals. In his commitment to social justice and his elegance as a writer he is our Bahamian José Martí.
His body of writing is expansive and his was a familiar and eloquent voice on political platforms throughout the archipelago. He was the driving force behind and editor of Bahamian Times, an indispensable tool in the struggle for racial and social equality.
With the help of a few faithful volunteers including George A. Smith, another surviving constitutional father, Sir Arthur produced the weekly from 1963 until 1967. The newspaper’s office on Wulff Road was a forum for political activists.
Sir Arthur’s prose extended to national documents which also gave voice to freedom’s call. He helped the PLP prepare its contributions for the 1964 Constitution. During his participation in the 1972 independence constitutional talks in London, he and the opposition FNM pressed the case for full equality for women, which the PLP resolutely opposed.
With the Colony of The Bahamas in turmoil because of rising expectations of democratic freedoms amidst the suppression of the aspirations of the majority, the PLP, urged on by the NCPA, heightened its political activity, using nonviolent direct action.
To protest against the UBP’s stubborn refusal to create fair electoral boundaries a three-part strategy included: the events of Black Tuesday, a boycott of the House of Assembly, and a petition to the U.N.’s Committee of 24, the committee on decolonization.
The petition was a comprehensive plea to the U.N. about the dire state of affairs in the colony, and the collusion between the white oligarchy and the British government to lock the majority out of political and economic power.
Designed to embarrass the British government into acting, the petition covered matters ranging from the lack of labor laws to insidiously unfair boundary arrangements.
Others like Warren Levarity, Jeffrey Thompson and Simeon Bowe contributed to the effort but it was left to Sir Arthur Foulkes to pen the final document. It was described by a U.N. official as one the best ever presented to the committee.
As an aside, it speaks to the character of Sir Arthur that he was able to vigorously oppose U.K. colonial rule, and yet serve graciously and with no malice towards the British as high commissioner to the Court of St. James, eventually becoming the Queen’s representative.
All heroes and heroines have clay feet. Yet there is a genius or courage in them which inspires in their fellow citizens a desire to memorialize the marbled stature and singular contribution of such heroes.
Nelson Mandela’s 27 years imprisonment on Robben Island, his endurance, along with that of other freedom fighters was the ground of sacrifice in which democracy took root and from which it sprang in South Africa.
Freedom fighters like Sir Cecil Wallace-Whitfield and Sir Arthur bent the arc of freedom here at home, enduring much to help secure Bahamian democracy. As PLPs they labored for racial equality, helping to form the first majority rule government in 1967.
For Sir Cecil and Sir Arthur, freedom’s cause was bigger than a single party or personality, indeed the two men often went their separate ways. Yet, they enjoyed a singular democratic conviction.
In the eventuality, they quickly left the comforts of power for the slog of opposition, which endured for a quarter of a century, as the powers that be sought to destroy them with unyielding and vicious tactics.
Alarmed at the early autocratic inclinations of Sir Lynden, the cult of personality being created around him, broken promises and the abandonment of collegiality, Sir Cecil, Sir Arthur and six fellow dissidents broke from their political home to provide others in the movement with a new home from which to realize the values and ideas of the broader movement for social justice.
Their brave actions ensured a vibrant two-party system. The FNM helped save Bahamian democracy. Both Sir Lynden Pindling and Arthur Hanna often stated that few sacrificed more for the movement than Sir Arthur.
Sir Cecil died before the FNM’s election to office in 1992. Twenty-one years later Sir Arthur is still flourishing. Having pledged his governor generalship to the youth of the commonwealth he has performed in office with vigor and dignity.
Having been at home in both major political parties, he counts friends in both. The beauty of our system and a pride of 40 years of independence is that we have a PLP government and a governor general appointed on the recommendation of an FNM administration. This is not bipartisanship. This is nonpartisanship.
By personality and by democratic conviction, Sir Arthur pledged to represent all Bahamians. He has done so gracefully, and with no hint of partisanship. He is beloved by FNMs and PLPs alike. He is a true symbol of unity.
Sir Arthur’s Bahamian journey represents the best of the Bahamian spirit, and the enduring struggle for what is essentially good about us as a people.
Even as we recall our failings as a nation, there is much to celebrate. This is certainly Sir Arthur’s conviction. He should know. He knows whence we came, and delights in the possibilities of current and future generations.
To have Sir Arthur as a father of the nation at the 40th is more than a privilege. His presence, and his vigilance as a fellow citizen pay testimony and witness to a history of struggle and transcendence by a proud people committed to equality and freedom. It is a history worthy of celebration and emulation.
July 04, 2013