In some jurisdictions there would be books written about attorney-at-law and social activist Robert Bobby Clarke. In several other third-world countries, perhaps there might be pictures or statuettes adorning his alma maters, the walls of community centers or prominent state-owned buildings. Instead, successive governments have failed to recognize and honour officially an individual who has spent a significant part of his youth and adult life committed to fighting the cause of the oppressed and the marginalized not only in Barbados but in a number of other regional countries.
But this is not surprising. Walking calmly now between his autumn and winter, Mr Clarke has had a most glorious spring and summer, even if there have been bouts of disappointment and frustration. Ironically, his public struggles have simply been to heighten the awareness of regional governments of their responsibilities to the predominantly black masses and the necessity for equal opportunities, poverty alleviation and people empowerment. He has frequently confronted both the white and black oligarchy in the Caribbean at the public and private levels and has suffered personally for his endeavours.
As a teenager back in the 1950s and fresh out of Combermere, Mr Clarke combatted what he perceived as the racist policies of his then employer Cable & Wireless while being a Barbados Workers Union shop steward. This was a fire lit in him that has not dimmed more than half a century later. In subsequent years Mr Clarke organized workers into the trade union movement at institutions such as the Sanitation Service Authority, Arawak Cement Plant and Heywood’s Hotel, to name a few.
An avowed Pan Africanist, the octogenarian is a founder of the local Pan African Movement and rubbed shoulders with a number of noted, like-minded regionalists who were unafraid to be branded rebels by the status quo during their struggle to access a better deal for black working class citizens in the Caribbean. Whether Mr Clarke walked with Geddes Granger in Trinidad and Tobago, Maurice Bishop in Grenada, Walter Rodney in Guyana or Fidel Castro in Cuba, his actions were fearless, selfless, progressive and in the service of others.
But in the 1970s Caribbean, still heavily influenced by its colonial and imperialist yoke, his social activism predictably occasioned discomfort among the ruling political powers that were not fulfilling their responsibilities to the masses. This led to his banishment in a number of regional territories including Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines. That convenient communist tag was placed on him as though a moniker that negated the relevance and truth of his constant messages.
As a Barbadian, Mr Clarke could not be banned from the place of his birth and thus while many quietly spoke about the disparity in opportunities provided by businesses and banks to blacks compared to whites in the island, Clarke took to the streets in loud protest, going as far as spray-painting maps of the African continent on buildings in the city in symbolic emphasis. He went against the dictates of the government of the day by holding public meetings where he spoke out about injustices in Barbados and was arrested, charged and fined for his troubles. But similar to the likes of “Buzz” Butler, Stokely Carmichael, and others before him, court appearances did not diminish the importance of this radicalism with a cause.
Mr Clarke has been a facilitator of important linkages between Cuba and Barbados that have seen many working-class Barbadians benefit from a university education, and in some instances, inexpensive medical treatment. Long before Cuba was accepted openly by Caribbean governments as part of the regional family, Clarke vociferously promoted that country into the psyche of the ordinary West Indian citizenry.
He has fought environmental causes in Barbados and is still engaged in a pro bono battle against the state on behalf of residents of Emmerton in the City whose health has been compromised over the years by the stench from the Bridgetown Sewerage Plant. There are many others in the country who can attest to Mr Clarke fighting their cause in the law courts pro bono. Whether it be women’s rights, the poor, oppressed workers, disadvantaged children or some other social cause, Mr Clarke has always been willing to take up the mantle.
Eighteenth-century English poet Oliver Goldsmith once said that where wealth and freedom reign contentment fails, and honour sinks where commerce long prevails. Laws, Goldsmith added, grind the poor and rich men rule the law. Robert Bobby Clarke could have settled for more by agitating less but over a lifetime he has done more by settling for less for himself. And many across the region are better off for his selflessness.