The date was Sunday June 20, 1965, and the great civil rights leader, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was waxing eloquent in the historic chapel of the University of the West Indies, Mona.
The occasion was the annual valedictory service for another batch of promising future Caribbean leaders, and he not just struck a cord, but broke with the prevailing mindset of the day when he uttered those now immortalized words:
“If it falls to our luck to be street-sweepers, sweep the streets, like Raphael painted pictures, like Michaelangelo 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”
Never mind that all the images of excellence in that quote were European – it was simply a reflection of the times. Jamaica was a mere toddler at three years old, and though by then we would have established a distinct culture, the education system was still largely quite colonial in content.
Today we might say – sweep the street like Asafa and Sherone run the 100 m, like Sarah Newland used to swim the Kingston Harbour, like Sly and Robbie ‘work’ the drum and the bass, or like how Jody Anne Maxwell swept the Scripps Howard spelling competition in Washington a few years ago. [Boy, I wish I could say like how West Indies plays cricket.but I better leave that one alone.]
Well, how about this – sweep the streets like Ambassador Courtney Walsh made his name as work-manlike pace bowler, and as he now represents the best of our country at home and abroad.
The point is really this – we have many examples of how hard work can enhance individual lives, make communities proud, and if applied consistently, transform nations.
The birth of our modern labour movement in 1938 is testimony to the fact that the REAL Jamaica (not the evidence of the work of the bad eggs) – and genuine Jamaicans clearly understand the dignity of work and the transformative power of collective effort.
That is why Dr. King’s message resonated so powerfully in then we had a vibrant labour movement which understood its power, and which helped to precipitate political independence and self determination.
During that 1965 visit Dr. King, while laying a wreath at National Heroes Park in Honour of the Right Excellent Marcus Mosiah Garvey, felt constrained to highlight the sense of confidence which pervaded the Jamaican phyche, even in those early days of nationhood.
He said in part:”I have never felt more at home anywhere else in the world. In Jamaica I feel like a human being. I am proud to be among my brothers and sisters on this wonderful island. This is the home of Marcus Garvey, a man who, through his work gave the Negroes in the United States a sense of dignity, a sense of personhood, a sense of manhood, a sense of somebodiness.”
So that sense of self has yielded a suite of progressive labour laws, and as former Prime Minister Patterson reminded us in that quote which is often taken out of context – the laws we now have are a tool for social engineering. — that is why we have solid grounds on which to correct many of the concerns when they arise – including a few in the tourist sector, for which I also have responsibility.
Why am I saying all of this?Surely you remember what Garvey said when he warned us about the consequences of forgetting our history.
I am simply reminding us all of our pedigree, and that much of what has been lost, can be attributed to a dampening of the community spirit. While the labour movement in this country is still quite vibrant, we often detect a lack of commitment among us to educate ourselves about the rapidly changing realities in the global market place. Often, we simply see the unions as a ‘bulldog’ to ‘set pon dem’ [dem, here being the employer] when we want more money.
Now – as I say over and over again – money is a good thing! I am personally committed to continue using my present position to facilitate the flow of revenue into the pockets of Jamaicans involved in the sectors I serve. However, more and more in today’s world, the realization of that money is a reflection of a certain mindset rather than just harder hustling. It is about working smarter.
One of the smartest ways to work is within networks [it’s not who you know, but who knows you!]. The simplest network of course is the extended family, and in our African tradition, this takes in the whole ‘village’.
This year as we set our minds once again on Labour Day, let us focus on working smarter by re-building networks.and YES – networks DO work. They work because of the simple principle of interdependence being a higher state of existence than independence.
In other words, we need each other.even in the rat race of modern life – we still need each other, because each one brings something special to the table. Networks in the form of neighbourhood watch programmes succeed because the skills and talents are pooled to fight crime.
Networks in the rural communities are exemplary when they put on food festivals utilizing natural resources, and using the proceeds to build a school – This is the real story of the Delveland Mango festival in Westmoreland.
Let’s now fast forward to 2007 and this year’s observance of National Labour Day.
In this bicentenary year when we honour our ancestors, let us consider the many ways in which we can prove— first to ourselves, that we deserve the fruits of their labour. Let us not just go sweep a street as a token effort.let’s put a little thought into the selection of the projects.
Let me give you an idea of about 7 things you could possibly do, and I am sure you can add a few more.
Church families can clean up historic cemeteries, which help our own children and visitors as well to have a better sense of our history.
Communities surrounding national heritage sites can beautify common areas or repair monuments.
Delve into the history of your village or ‘cawna’, and create ‘edu-taining’ attractions around it. (Every community has a story!)
Repairing community centres or establishing more areas for recreation.
Plan a family trip to your ancestral home or home town and make a working picnic of the experience, while regaling younger family members about their roots.
If you live in a well-manicured neighbourhood that needs no improvement, or you cannot quite think of anything – get together with co-workers and carpool to work on the national project.
Service clubs can build a few projects into their work plan for this quarter which are in keeping with their international goals – I myself am a member of a service club, and I will be talking to my people about how we can lock in to Labour Day 2007.
While I know that the end product of our collective efforts this Labour Day will be a combination of pride and possibilities, I have decided to reward the community that best exemplifies this year’s theme. The Most Honourable Prime Minister will formally announce that theme in a moment, but here is a carrot in the meantime – The JCDC will work with the winners to mount a community-driven event to raise funds to support a local cause of their choosing.
The idea behind this is to demonstrate in a tangible way the fact that the development of cultural industries represents our best hope of sustainable economic growth.
I’d also like to use this opportunity to appeal to the business community to strengthen our existing partnership by offering incentives such as gift vouchers or price breaks on supplies for projects registered with the Labour Day Secretariat.
Our sponsorship sub-committee is led this year again by the diminutive dynamo, TPDCo’s Sandy Chung is already making strides on the ground in discussions with commercial interests islandwide, but we invite you to call us as well if you have any ideas on how we can work together to create a more lasting legacy this Labour Day.
We will come to you, because we mean business.
I want to return briefly to Dr. King’s 1965 message in support of my closing charge.
“The time is always right to do right. Whenever a new nation comes into history, it brings with it new challenges and new responsibilities. The great challenge facing all of us today — is to somehow stand before the opportunities of the moment and face the challenges of the hour with creativity and with commitment and with determination.”
That determination has been echoed over the years by our artists and artisans.our teachers and our young people who are dedicated to communities working together for the common good.
Let’s be inspired to do that right by our communities this Labour Day, driven by the closing line of Vera Bell’s classic ode our ancestors (Ancestor on the Auction Block):
Yours was the task to clear the groundMine be the task to build.
Let’s build a real community vibe this Labour Day, and with that energy, there is no limit to what we can achieve together.
One Love!

JIS Social