Claudia Jones (1915-1964)
Claudia Jones was born in Belmont, Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1915, when the island was still a British colony. When she was eight, the family moved to Harlem, New York. Due to their impoverished living conditions, Jones contracted the tuberculosis that would dog her for the rest of her life. In 1936, frustrated by the way issues relating to black people were neglected in mainstream politics, she joined the Communist Party, attracted by its ethos of social equality. She rapidly proved her journalistic flair, and edited ‘Negro Affairs’ for the party’s paper, The Daily Worker. In 1941 she became National Director of the Young Communist League. As the Cold War developed, Jones’s membership of the Communist party made her life increasingly problematic. Her application for US citizenship was refused in 1940, and from 1942 onwards, she was kept under intense FBI surveillance. Arrested for the first time in 1948, she was in and out of prison over the next few years before eventually being charged and convicted of ’teaching and advocating the overthrow of the US government by force’. After she enforced to leave America and came to Britain, she continues to work to resolve violent reaction to post-war immigration from the Caribbean. It is the Caribbean Carnival in London, the forerunner of the Notting Hill Carnival that remains Jones’ most enduring legacy. She helped devise the event in response to the 1958 riots. Simmering tensions between communities had exploded into violence with racist mobs attacking local black residents. Drawing inspiration from the Trinidadian Carnivals of her childhood, and in keeping with her conviction that arts and culture had an important role to play within politics and society, she hoped the Carnival would encourage greater harmony between all local communities. It was a way of both building black confidence and extending a ‘hand of friendship’ to white communities. Although there is some debate as to who originally initiated the Carnival, there is no doubt that Jones was a pivotal force in the adoption of the idea.
Gilberto Gil (b. 1942)
Singer, composer, musician, politician and environmental activist Gilberto Gil, entered active politics in 1987. He was already an international figure when in 2003 the President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio da Silva, offered Gil the newly created post of Minister of Culture. This made him the second black person to have served in a Brazilian government.
Gil was born into a middleclass family in 1942 in the countryside of Bahia, Brazil. Bahia has always been a vibrant centre for music creation and production. Growing up steeped in this tradition, he learned to play the drums and the accordion, and even taught himself the trumpet. Influenced initially by the forró music of his native northeast, whilst at high school in Salvador, Gil helped set up the band, Os Desafinados (The Out of Tunes). He was just 18.
1969, however, was a year of triumphs as well as lows for Gil. It was the year in which he had his first hit as a solo artist with the song AqueleAbraço. But it was also the year, in which he and fellow musician Caetano Veloso were arrested by the Brazilian military government, doubtless because of the oblique criticisms contained in their lyrics. Gil and Veloso spent three months in prison and six months under house arrest, before being freed on the condition that they went into permanent exile. Gil, who went to London, believes that the government thought of him as ‘represent[ing] a threat [to them], something new, something that can’t quite be understood, something that doesn’t fit into any of the clear compartments of existing cultural practices, and that won’t do. That is dangerous.’
Three years later Gil was back in his beloved Brazil. The years of exile in London had been musically productive and he had performed with such groups as Yes, Pink Floyd, and the Incredible String Band. When he returned, in 1972 Gil participated in the renaissance of the African Brazilian afoxé tradition in Carnaval. Also he collaborated with Jimmy Cliff and they jointly released a cover of ‘No Woman, No Cry’ in 1980. It was an instant number one hit that arguably introduced reggae to Brazil. By now an unstoppable global musical force, Gil’s Quanta Live won the 1998 Grammy Award for Best World Music Album, whilst his Eletracústico won the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album. In 2005 he received the Légiond’honneur from the French government.
He has been deeply involved with the conservation movement in Brazil, and in 2001 he was made a Goodwill Ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. As Minister for Culture, he sponsored the Culture Points programme, which awarded grants for music education and technology to the young urban poor, doubling the department’s expenditure in the process. Gil’s music is in a constant state of reinvention and his appeal to new generations of music lovers demonstrates his wide-ranging popularity. In 2007, Gil announced his intention to resign from his post as Minister of Culture. President Luiz Inacio da Silva rejected Gil’s first two attempts to resign, but gave in to a third request in July 2008. Acknowledging the good work Gil had done for Brazil, da Silva said that Gil was ‘going back to being a great artist, going back to giving priority to what is most important to him.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)
Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta in 1929, into a family where his father was a third generation Pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. King’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement started during his time as Pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and president of the Montgomery Improvement Association when Rosa Parks began the 282 day bus boycott after refusing to give up her seat at the front of a bus.
King’s commitment to non-violence protest is unquestionable. Even after his house was firebombed whilst he and his family were inside, King did not waver in his vow of non-violence. It was not until this moment that the Civil Rights movement which began in the 1940’s found its true leader.
The most famous aspect of King’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement is his ‘I have a dream’ speech, which has become one of the most iconic speeches in recent history. The speech was made in 1963 after JFK proposed his civil rights bill. This led to the civil rights leader organising a march in Washington to show support for the bill, which attracted 400,000 people. This, along with the rest of King’s work to promote peaceful protests, led to him being named Time Magazines person of the year in 1963 and awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Martin Luther King was assassinated on 4th April 1968 whilst standing on the balcony of the Lorriane Hotel, Memphis.
Alex la Guma (1925-1985)
Justin Alex la Guma was born on 20 February 1925, his father was a leading figure in trade union politics and gave the Soviet Union his uncompromising support. La Guma’s childhood was spent surrounded by debates of national liberation politics were to have a great effect on his adult life. He followed his father’s footsteps into Trade Unions and helped organise a strike in the 1940’s and by 1950 had been entered onto a list of known communists.
La Guma worked as a writer and journalist. He started as a reporter for the New Age (a weekly magazine which was left-wing and linked to the African National Congress, where he wrote a number of short stories.
Following 1956, la Guma was subjected to ten years of unrelenting police harassment. Despite this trouble, it was during this period that la Guma really started to become recognised as a writer. He was involved along with a number of other writers in drafting the Freedom Charter (a declaration of rights for the black South African population). His involvement with the charter and other anti-apartheid movements led to his trial along with 154 others during the Johannesburg Treason Trail. In 1960 la Guma spent five months in prison after 69 black south African protestors were killed in Sharpville, then in 1962 he was put under 24 hour house arrest and was put into solitary confinement twice in 1963 and 1966 without trial.
La Guma did not receive international recognition for his work until he produced the novella A Walk in the Night, which followed the leading characters’ encounters with poverty, racism, police harassment and criminality. The book was well-received well by critics, however, la Guma’s own people in South Africa were unable to read the book as its publication was censored.