Maurice Bishop and the Legacy of the Grenadian Revolution

“People of Grenada, this revolution is for work, for food, for decent housing and health services and a bright future for our children and grandchildren. The benefit of the revolution will be given to everyone regardless of political opinion or which political party they support. Let us all unite as one.” With those words, revolutionary leader Maurice Bishop and his New Jewel Movement (NJM) inaugurated a four-year transformation in Grenada, which Bishop described as a “Bright New Dawn.” In an era informed by the rise of autocratic and anti-democratic sensibilities around the world, the 40th anniversary of the Grenadian Revolution is a time to reflect on democratic possibilities for African-descendant people in the Western Hemisphere. It also offers a glimmer of hope that democracy, no matter how short or fleeting, lights a path forward for humankind.

Four decades ago, Grenada — one of the smallest island nations in the Caribbean with fewer than 90,000 inhabitants — found itself thrust into regional and international spotlight. Bishop and his NJM envisioned a world of participatory and popular democracy based on inclusion and fairness. Modeled on the ideas of Tanzanian Pan Africanist Julius Nyerere — whose conceptualization of ujamaa, familyhood, and cooperative economics informed social, political, and economic frameworks in Tanzania — Bishop envisioned a new path that would correct inequities bequeathed by slavery, colonialism, and postcolonialism.

The history of Grenada is punctuated with conflicts with Great Britain, including the quest for independence and the direction of the post-colonial state. One of the central figures in Grenada’s postcolonial history was Eric Matthew Gairy. Self-taught and educated, Gairy emerged as a formidable union leader after establishing the Grenada Manual and Mental Workers’ Union (GMMWU) in 1950. Gairy called a general strike on February 19, 1951, which crippled the island and led to his arrest. As unrest continued, colonial authorities looked to Gairy to exert his influence with the workers to quell the rebellion; he took to the airwaves appealing to workers to cease protesting and destroying property. After a month of disturbances, protests abated, and things returned to normal.

After the rebellion ended, Grenada was poised to enter a new era. Legislators approved a new constitution in 1951, and Gairy founded the Grenada United Labour Party (GULP). In 1955, the Grenada National Party was established, representing the plantation elite. Yet the winds of change were sweeping the Caribbean, due in part to the global wave of decolonization. The British granted the country self-government (except in the areas of foreign policy and defense) in 1967, and Gairy became prime minister.

Gairy resorted to extralegal and legal tactics to maintain power, building a system of political patronage that awarded public office to friends and silenced and marginalized opponents. He employed a group known as the Mongoose Squad, which regularly used blackmail, physical aggression, burglary, and assault. He also passed a series of restrictive laws including 1968’s Firearms Act, which forbade the possession of firearms by members of the opposition, and the Public Order Act, which banned loudspeakers not previously authorized by the officials.

As Britain and Grenada began to complete independence talks in 1974, it became clear that the interests of everyday working-class people were not represented. Grenadians responded to this situation by forming progressive organizations, the most significant of which were the Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education, and Liberation (JEWEL) headed by Unison Whiteman, and the Movement of the Assemblies of the People (MAP) led by Maurice Bishop and Kendrick Radix. Like so many revolutionaries of his era including Fidel Castro in Cuba and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Bishop was a trained attorney. A charismatic orator, thinker, leader, and organizer who was sensitive to the needs of the people, Bishop believed communal organization was key to national solidarity and peace. Determined to chart a progressive way forward, he was the driving force in creating a new vision for Grenadian society.

The NJM favored a collectivist approach to dealing with a range of social, political, economic problems in Grenada — the antithesis of Gairy’s policies. It developed a program to improve housing, education, public health, food, and recreation. NJM also established a newspaper, The New Jewel, which rapidly became the most widely circulated paper on the island. From the outset, NJM opposed Gairy’s plans for independence, which led to a general strike on November 1, 1973. A People’s Congress was convened, which tried Gairy and found him guilty of crimes against the people. Protests continued against the Gairy government into 1974. The party announced another general strike, but on strike day, NJM leaders were severely beaten. In a separate protest, powerful interests killed Rupert Bishop, Maurice’s father, who was peacefully protesting.

Widespread fraud in the 1976 electoral process (including intimidation by the Mongoose Gang) convinced Bishop and his associates that Gairy would not voluntarily step down, and military action was necessary to effect change. NJM seized control of the country in 1979 while Gairy was traveling abroad, a bloodless coup that was hailed as a bright new dawn. Bishop and NJM moved to institute a progressive regime designed to improve the lived experience of everyday Grenadians.

The Grenadian Revolution accomplished progress in all areas of the state. It became mandatory for employers to recognize unions and workers’ right to strike, which led to a significant increase in union membership. The society was reorganized along collectivist lines and councils were set up in workplaces, parishes, villages, and neighborhoods. Political education focused on understanding capitalism and alternative approaches to societal and community organization, with a particular focus on revolutionary Marxism. Women too were central to the revolution, and NJM established a Women’s Desk in the Ministry of Education and Social Affairs which also supported maternity leave and equal pay.

Growth took place in the agricultural and educational sectors. Land reform initiatives included low-interest loans to farmers and cooperatives, as well as programs to create markets for produce. There was also a state-run tractor pool of 45 vehicles, while new training schools advanced agricultural knowledge. Advances in medicine enabled clinics for the general population, as well as modernization of the main hospital. Paulo Freire designed and led an educational program that brought literacy rates to 89 percent, and secondary school became a right. Elementary children received free books, school uniforms, and hot lunches.

The island’s infrastructure also vastly improved. Cuba assisted with the construction of a new international airport, a project that promoted trade and tourism. Investments in manufacturing brought new factories that processed, packaged, and marketed products. Improvements in transportation led to new roads upon which newly purchased buses traveled. Additional changes improved water, telephone, and electricity services.

Yet Western perceptions held that Grenada was essentially a proxy state for the Soviets, significantly influenced by Cuba, which overshadowed the Bishop government’s many accomplishments. Western leaders viewed the Port Salines Airport as proving the association between Grenada and the Soviet Union. In a moment defined by the tensions of the Cold War, Western policymakers viewed Grenada through the same lenses as Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas in Nicaragua — another example of Soviet attempts to exert influence in the Western hemisphere. The US immediately made plans to undermine the government.

Internal dissension within the NJM led to a dispute between Bishop and his Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard, who tried to persuade Bishop to participate in a power-sharing agreement. Bishop refused and was placed under house arrest, though his popularity led to his release. Bishop, supporters, and members of his government then proceeded to army headquarters at Fort Rupert, where fighting ensued, and assassins lined up Bishop and several of his government ministers — including Minister of Education Jacqueline Creft (who was reportedly pregnant), Foreign Minister Unison Whiteman, Agricultural and General Workers Union President Fitzroy Bain, and Norris Bain, Minister of Housing. They were shot, their bodies collected, and burned in a pit. More than 17 persons were convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Maurice Bishop and his cabinet officials, none were executed, and all were subsequently released.

A military government led by Hudson Austin was established following Bishop’s assassination in 1983, and Austin declared a four-day curfew. The chaos and confusion surrounding these events became the pretext for broader international action. Within six days, the United States invaded Grenada and overthrew the government.

Forty years have passed since the Grenadian Revolution, but Maurice Bishop’s Bright New Dawn still has currency among Grenadians and proponents of democracy the world over.

Although the revolution’s chaotic final days that ended in Bishop’s assassination overshadowed its many accomplishments, the long term implications of the revolution are beneficial when thinking about democratic possibilities in Caribbean and African nations. Grenada has grappled with the legacy of its evolution in significant ways. Like in South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by a Roman Catholic priest investigated the events of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It uncovered significant resentment in Grenadian society and many unresolved tensions from the period including the fact that Bishop’s body was never found. In 2009, the Point Salines Airport became the Maurice Bishop International Airport. In the renaming ceremony, Dr. Ralph Gonclaves proclaimed, “This belated honor to an outstanding Caribbean son will bring closure to a chapter of denial in Grenada’s history.”

Bishops’ courage, oratory, and sweeping plans for societal transformation have been heralded the world over. An ardent internationalist, Bishop’s interest in nonaligned nations made him a thought leader in exceeding the limitations of Western interests during the Cold War. His willingness to sacrifice himself and literally to sacrifice his life for the freedom of African-descended people elevates him to the pantheon of Black leaders who have unselfishly sacrificed themselves for our collective freedom. His life and those of the NJM are a testament to the best in the human condition and underscore the importance of the continued struggle for liberation.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. He is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.