Out of many: Martin Luther King Jr and Jamaica

Martin Luther King, Jr, visited Jamaica in 1965, at the height of his fame. He roused audiences there with his soaring speeches, James Ferguson explains, but the newly independent nation inspired the Civil Rights hero just as indelibly

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

When Martin Luther King, Jr, arrived at Jamaica’s Palisadoes Airport fifty years ago, on 20 June, 1965, he was at the peak of his fame. Born in 1929 in Atlanta, the charismatic Baptist preacher had become the face — and the voice — of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Active in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and anti-segregation protests in other southern states, he had achieved something akin to superstar status among African-Americans and liberal supporters with the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered the immortal speech “I Have a Dream”.

As a superb orator, his speeches and sermons mingling radical new ideas with the traditions of Southern Baptist preaching, his reputation spread outside the United States, and into the political ferment of the 1960s Caribbean, where independence and an end to racial oppression were high on the agenda. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to King in October 1964 and the dramatic Selma-to-Montgomery marches — demonstrations in favour of equal voting rights — seemed to symbolise a new era across the English-speaking Americas.

King’s arrival in Jamaica understandably sparked off enormous excitement. It was not an “official” visit — acting Prime Minister Hugh Shearer was away in London for a Commonwealth summit — but was in fact arranged by the University of the West Indies, which had asked King to deliver the annual valedictory sermon for graduating students.

So it was that several hundred graduates — plus an unspecified number of unofficial admirers — crammed into UWI’s Assembly Hall to hear the sermon. Remembering the event in the Jamaica Gleaner, Professor Patrick Bryan remarked, “It was an incredible experience to hear so strong and commanding a speaker, it was as if you were entranced when listening to him . . . He used no notes and talked without a hitch.” The sermon was entitled “Facing the Challenge of a New Age”, and one passage — when King urged his audience to excel in whatever field was theirs — is rightly famous:

If it falls to our luck to be street-sweepers, sweep the streets like Raphael painted pictures, like Michelangelo carved marble, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, and like Beethoven composed music. Sweep the streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth would have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper.”

The next day King addressed a huge audience at Jamaica’s National Stadium, where he was awarded the keys to the City of Kingston. A photo taken that day shows the main stand at the stadium packed with young Jamaicans. King’s tone was warm and personal. He said he had never felt more at home anywhere in the world: “In Jamaica I feel like a human being.” This theme of identity and belonging was reiterated when King laid a wreath at the tomb of Jamaican National Hero Marcus Garvey, who had, he said, given African-Americans a “sense of personhood, a sense of manhood, a sense of somebodiness.”

The official part of the visit over, King and his wife Coretta were free to tour the island and to relax. What is striking, as King recalled in a speech of 4 July, is the profound impact Jamaica — and Jamaicans — had upon him. He may have captivated his audiences with his powerful oratory, but he was also captivated by what he saw as a multiracial, non-hierarchical nation of many disparate groups:

The other day Mrs King and I spent about ten days down in Jamaica . . . I always love to go to that great island which I consider the most beautiful island in all the world. The government prevailed upon us to be their guests and spend some time and try to get a little rest while there on the speaking tour. And so for those days we travelled all over Jamaica. And over and over again I was impressed by one thing. Here you have people from many national backgrounds: Chinese, Indians, so-called Negroes, and you can just go down the line, Europeans, and people from many, many nations. Do you know they all live there and they have a motto in Jamaica, “Out of many people, one people.” And they say, “Here in Jamaica we are not Chinese, we are not Japanese, we are not Indians, we are not Negroes, we are not Englishmen, we are not Canadians. But we are all one big family of Jamaicans.” One day, here in America, I hope that we will see this and we will become one big family of Americans.

King’s compelling vision may have downplayed some of the more obvious inequalities in 1960s Jamaica, but here — in contrast to the southern states of the US — was a place where racism was not institutionalised, where independence promised social progress and a healing of historic wounds.

King’s association with Jamaica did not end there. In January and February 1967, he, Coretta, and two more friends rented an isolated house near Ocho Rios, on the island’s scenic north coast. With the spectre of the Vietnam War increasingly hanging over him, King needed to escape to think and to write a book fittingly entitled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? The absence of the couple’s four children and the seclusion of the property (there was no phone) seemingly had the desired effect, as the book, which called for economic redistribution and social reform, was finished to meet the publisher’s deadline. An edition of Ebony ran pictures of the Kings’ “tropic interlude,” complete with swimming pool and beach walks, but reported that the usually fastidious and smartly attired King “worked most of the time dressed in pyjamas, bathrobe and slippers . . . and often skipped a shave.”

It was to be the last such idyll. On 4 April, 1968, King was shot dead by James Earl Ray in Memphis, an act which abruptly silenced the pre-eminent spokesman of the American Civil Rights Movement. Coretta Scott King was to return to Jamaica later that year to accept the first Marcus Garvey Prize for Human Rights, presented on 10 December at the National Stadium by Prime Minister Shearer. According to the Baltimore Afro-American, Mrs King, “a resplendent figure, elegantly attired in a white ensemble accented by silver and gold beads and rhinestones,” told the seven-thousand-strong audience that her late husband’s “spirit is with us tonight. He had great affection for you as a people and was greatly inspired by your motto, ‘Out of Many, One People.’”