William Smalls Jr.
The recent visit by Pope Francis to Cuba and to the United States has been given a great deal of attention, and appropriately so. While much of the main stream media chose to place early emphasis on his remarks as a rebuke of human rights conditions in Cuba and a call for political reform, I am convinced that the world audience saw and heard much more. What I observed, as a part of that audience, was a spiritual leader of exceptional confidence and influence who was clearly and literally on a mission. The mission being to speak to and address critical life issues with social justice implications in a forthright and direct manner. There are a lot of clerics, politicians and religious leaders who openly deplore injustice, poverty and the near permanent assault that befalls the human condition; but in my experience there are very few who dare repeatedly to specifically name those conditions in a way that links them to the value system and the comforts that ensure their perpetuation and entrenchment in our social order. Some might say that what the Pope is doing takes courage. Others, me included, will suggest that his public commentaries are a better example of deep faith and conviction. I am not convinced that these respective states of mind are the same.
As I listened to the Pope, I was also reminded of a very special African-American religious leader who is well remembered by Cuban officials for his spiritual calling and solidarity initiatives in Cuba and Nicaragua. I am speaking of none other than the late Reverend Lucius Walker. Reverend Walker was reared in Roselle.
Reverend Walker was a graduate of Shaw University and a Pastor of the Salvation Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. He was also the head of a nonprofit organization known as Pastors for Peace. Reverend Walker was a social justice advocate. For 21 years beginning in 1992, he led annual relief convoys to Cuba. The objective was to deliver bibles, bicycles, medical supplies and other humanitarian assistance directly to the Cuban people. His spirit and his courage were such that he refused to apply for permission to export items to Cuba. There were regular hassles and haggling, with United States officials, at the borders in Mexico or Canada or the country that was his chosen route for the delivery. He refused to recognize the embargo and acted on his belief—an act of courage as well as an act of defiance.
Reverend Walker, as founder and Executive Director of The Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, was responsible in major part for discussion and helping to develop the strategies resulting in the initial Papal visits to Cuba after the revolution. He was also responsible for establishing the program where American students, generally from poor areas, are enrolled at the Latin American School of Medicine In Havana. The objective is to train and provide an increased number of medically licensed care givers to serve poor communities in America. At the time of his death, it is reported that his passing was announced on the official Cuban government website. The major Cuban newspaper is quoted to have printed “Cubans, in gratitude, have to say that we don’t want to think of a world without Lucius Walker.”
I am proud and fortunate to have known Reverend Walker. Our association and his inspiration led me to travel to Cuba as a member of his delegation. In 1990, I was credentialed and led a delegation to the Atlantic coast community of Bluefields, Nicaragua, as an official election observer in the hotly contested presidential campaign between Violeta Chamorro and Daniel Ortega. My association with Reverend Walker and this movement also made me, in my estimation, a better university professor. I spent a portion of one summer crossing America, on the “yellow bus,” speaking daily in different communities and collecting humanitarian aid materials that were to be carried into Cuba. It was an extremely consciousness-impacting experience and a reintroduction to America herself.
Listening to Pope Francis also made me reflect on my experience in Cuba and my understanding of the reasons for “the embargo,” which continues until this day. As an African descendant man in America, I have learned to see the embargo through a much larger prism. It was not just the revolution and its affront to the Monroe Doctrine. Neither was it just another conflict between the forces of capitalism and communism. Although those factors are to some degree at play, it became very clear to me that the problem with Cuba was steeped as deeply in its rejection of white supremacist racial policies as it was in its economic ideology.
Because of the revolution, Black Cubans were brought from the extreme margins of society into the newly created systems of free public education. Free health care as a service and health care delivery as a means of employment were opened up to all. There was an appreciably rapid and legitimate attempt to create a more egalitarian society. This was developing as a “Bad Example” for the region. The Cuban government philosophy under Castro was equally concerned with social justice and expanded opportunities for all in other regions of the world where Black people were choking on the vestiges of colonialism.
Let us not forget that, when President Castro came to visit the United States and address the United Nations in 1960, he stayed in Harlem at the Theresa Hotel because the downtown hotels would not accept him. Remember the invasion of Grenada by the United States? Cuba was there. Remember the Contra War in Nicaragua and the drug activity in the United States that was spawned by the United States’ effort to fund it? Cuba was in Nicaragua. Remember the attempts by Che Guevara to help break the shackles of colonialism in the Congo? Importantly also remember that, in 1991, one of the first stops that Nelson Mandela made on his “victory tour” was to Cuba. There, he publicly thanked the Cuban government and the Cuban people for their military contribution in Angola that expedited liberation for South Africa and hastened his release from prison. He addressed them as” Comrades.” At the time, the United States had been a principal supporter of South African apartheid. Is there any wonder why the embargo continues?
We must first learn and then not forget this history. We must remember our Black leaders and friends and their contribution to the advance of social justice and political empowerment on the local and world stage. Neither should we forget those who found the courage to stand and not cower in those moments when standing made the difference. Reminder: Shaw University (an HBCU) was integral to the preparation of Lucius Walker.
Dr. Small is a retired educator, a former Board Chairman and recently fired Trustee at South Carolina State University.