This was the message delivered by Professor Colin A Palmer at the 25th annual Eric Williams Memorial Lecture, held at the Central Bank Auditorium on June 11.
“He did not enter the political arena for material benefit and he died a man of very modest means. If Eric Williams had been a corrupt politician, the British and the Americans would have had no compunction about publicising his misdeeds, given their antipathy to him...Our contemporary leaders must likewise strive to maintain a public image that is beyond reproach and should also eschew appealing to people’s worst instincts. Abuse of one’s opponents is an awful substitute for the articulation of ideas,” Palmer told a packed auditorium.
This year marks the centenary of William’s birth on September 25, 1911, hence the decision to make the topic of this year’s lecture “Eric Williams and the Challenges of Caribbean Leadership”. It was the first time the lecture series had ever focused on Williams himself and his leadership of TT from a British colony to an independent nation.
Palmer, who is director of the Scholars in Residence Program at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, spoke of Williams’ determination to avoid racial divisions and tensions as he led TT from colonialism to independence in 1962 and a republic in 1976.
“Eric Williams fervently embraced TT’s racial diversity, seeing it as an asset and boasting about it always in front of overseas audiences. As a descendant of enslaved Africans, he rejected racist ideologies in all of their forms and was respectful of ethnic differences. There is of course some difference of opinion on Williams’ record on race during his tenure in office. (However) there is no gainsaying the fact that (his) leadership saved TT from the terrible racial conflicts that engulfed British Guyana throughout the 1960s. British Guyana and TT possessed similar racial configurations, so Williams feared the spread of BG’s racial virus to his own country, threatening its fragile societal harmony,” Palmer explained.
Caribbean economic and political unity were two major goals of Williams, which Professor Palmer noted remain incomplete today.
“The Anglophone Caribbean produced several significant political leaders in the second half of the 20th Century...but none of them were as passionately convinced as Eric Williams that a better future for their respective nations resided in their being a part of an economic and political unit more vital than their own. He was willing to subordinate his country’s sovereignty for that of a larger political unit. A vision, and I stress this, that remains compelling, timely and important.”
Palmer urged CARICOM leaders and their Cabinet ministers to follow Williams’ vision of regional integration if they were really interested in improving the lives of their citizens.
“I would like, for a start, to see regular meetings of ministers of the region who own the portfolios of finance, education, agriculture, health, trade, science and technology and so on. I want to see these people meet to discuss common problems and to cross-fertilise one another.
“I should like our Governments to pay greater attention to the provision of skills to our young people that would allow them to function in what is certain to be a technologically-driven twenty-first century. None of these initiatives will succeed unless the spirit...the enthusiasm of our Caribbean people is harnessed and called into service,” Palmer said.
Turning his attention to the centenary of Eric Williams’ birth and his contribution to national and regional development, Palmer urged TT to pay Williams the respect he deserves.
“In death he ceased to be identified with or claimed exclusively by any political party or ethnic group. Like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and others, Williams should be seen as transcending narrowly constructed identities to become the property of all the peoples of this great land and by extrapolation, the region and the world.”
Palmer also advised voters across the Caribbean and regional media to use Eric Williams’ sense of integrity, hard work and dedication to the development of his nation, as the benchmark by which all other politicians should be graded.
“A prime minister for example, who deliberately lies to Parliament and the country should be unceremoniously shown the door...There cannot be any compromise on corruption, bigotry, violations of the constitution and abuses of the public trust. Bad behaviour should not be rewarded with election to high office or with continuation in that office. Serving people is a privilege, not a right,” Palmer declared, to loud applause.
Eric Williams’ scholarly works and his political legacy will be honoured again later this year, at his alma mater, Oxford University.
Palmer said “in September, the centenary of Williams’ birth, several of the world’s most distinguished scholars will gather at Oxford University to discuss the life and work of Eric Williams. It is both a tribute to the man and his country and to the Caribbean region. Sponsored by Eric Williams’ alma mater St Catherine’s College at Oxford and by the Eric Williams Memorial Collection, this timely conference will feature papers on his scholarship and his career as a politician and statesman.”