May 22, 2008 — "I pray for you, I pray that together we can make a new Caribbean, a Caribbean that is productive, that is united as a player in the new world economy and politics," Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan said Thursday, clearly inspiring a crowd of at least 100 visitors gathered on St. Thomas for African Liberation Day ceremonies.
African Liberation Day has been celebrated in the Virgin Islands annually for the last 30 years, and is an outgrowth of the 1958 Conference of Independent African States held in Accra, Ghana. In 1995, the Legislature passed a law authorizing the governor to declare May 25 African Liberation Day in the Virgin Islands. A proclamation heralding May 18-25 as African Heritage Week and May 25 as African Liberation Day was issued earlier this week by Gov. John deJongh Jr.
Residents and senators at Thursday's ceremonies said they came away from the event with many different ideas on what the central themes of Farrakhan's speech were. But the crowd acted and moved as one while he was speaking, bursting into applause as his deep voice reverberated throughout the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Chambers.
Farrakhan said he "felt at peace" in the Caribbean, where he has deep family ties to islands such as Jamaica — where his father was born — St. Kitts and Nevis, and Bermuda. The Nation of Islam leader said he joined radio personality Tom Joyner on a cruise that docked on St. Thomas Thursday and had asked Senate President Usie R. Richards if he could speak during the day's ceremonies.
"It just so happened that Tom Joyner said, 'well, why don't you come on this trip?'" Farrakhan explained. "I hesitated at first, but then I said, oh boy, it would be a nice thing for me to be able to get away from hell — to just get on a ship. And when we left Chicago, and got away from all the activity, it was like my blood pressure just began to settle down."
Farrakhan mixed his messages with humor and anecdotes that showed his knowledge of some of the territory's most pertinent issues and events. "Inspirational" was a word that consistently weaved its way through the crowd, as Farrakhan spoke about the power of truth over violence, and the ability of the Caribbean's African diaspora to break free from the legacy of colonialism by obtaining a true knowledge of themselves, their culture and history.
"The enemy has put us in such a terrible condition — but they fear the presence of one thing," he said. "It's not guns — they have all the guns that can be imagined — but when you've built your world on falsehood, when you have destroyed the lives of people with false ideas and concepts, then the only thing the enemy can fear is the presence of truth. So speak the truth regardless of the presence of consequences, even if it means your life, because nothing is more important than truth. The only thing that can sustain the heavens and the earth is truth."
Farrakhan's notions on "truth" struck a chord for many senators attending Thursday's event.
"It was an especially moving part," Sen. James Weber III said after the speech. "If there is truth, then oppression would be lifted, and true liberation can be achieved. But I also think he was also speaking about us all treating each other with respect, regardless of race, color or creed. If there is coexistence, then peace has a chance."
Issues such as a crumbling education system and poverty also came into play, as Farrakhan urged Caribbean leaders to take the initiative to build a brighter future "for our people and children."
"That's why the Legislature is so important," he said. "You can make the laws, laws for the people to rise. If greed and corruption infect those who lead, then you're setting up your country for destruction. Remember, it's not about how much money you can make, it's about what kind of future you can give to your children and grandchildren."
Sticking close to basic moral values and commandments was a theme most exhibited in Farrakhan's speech, said Sen. Ronald E. Russell.
"When he was talking about education, greed and corruption, I think he was speaking about the basic beliefs, values and commandments that we have all moved away from," Russell said. "These are things that have come down through the all the religions, and he stressed a return to those values."
Reducing the "brain drain," being more productive locally and being able to sustain the Virgin Islands through hard work instead of relying on outside help were also some of Farrakhan's main points.
"We need to stay here and build these islands," Farrakhan said. "When I come here, I look to see where the food is coming from. Every day ships come, a big container carrying fruits and veggies. Can't the Virgin Islands grow anything? You're depending on someone outside to feed you inside. You mean to tell me this beautiful island can't feed its own?"
Looking at the theme of the day's events — African liberation — Farrakhan found inspiration in his religion.
"When you love Him, you're not afraid of anyone outside of him," he said. "When you can say 'I love God and I'm not afraid of anyone else but him,' then you're free."
Other speakers during the day stressed the contributions of local and historical, figures such as Edward Wilmoth Blyden and Hubert Henry, and stressed the need for residents to "use their culture as a weapon in the quest for liberation."
"To the youths: If you want to understand yourself, you must understand your history, origin and culture, because it is those factors that define our society," said Kuumba Leba Ola-Niyi, representing the Pan African Support Group.
Gerard Emanuel, representing the Student Coalition for Better Government, also spoke about the development of a local constitution and its ability to give Virgin Islanders the right to "change the fundamental laws that govern us."
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