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Lucius Walker built solidarity with Cuba

Published Sep 26, 2010 8:53 PM

On Sept. 17 Harlem’s Convent Avenue Baptist Church filled with people celebrating the example, ongoing legacy and life of the Rev. Dr. Lucius Walker. Walker, 80, died suddenly Sept. 7 at his home in New Jersey.

The headline in Granma, the daily newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, announcing his death stated, “We do not want to think of a world without Lucius Walker.”

Rev. Lucius Walker, Fidel Castro,
Ellen Bernstein, Rev. Tom Smith in 2009.
Photo: IFCO/Pastors For Peace

An implacable foe of the U.S. war against socialist Cuba and a longtime and well-respected friend of the Cuban people, Walker is widely remembered for the 21 Friendshipment Caravans he led. These caravans carried material aid to Cuba, in a direct and determined challenge to the U.S. trade and travel blockade against that small island. Each caravan openly defied the blockade, traveling without license or government approval. From Canada, throughout every region in the U.S and into Mexico, the caravans gathered medicine, humanitarian aid and whatever successive U.S. administrations decried could not go to Cuba — including school buses, computers, satellite dishes, solar panels and more.

“The Little Yellow School Bus” became an ongoing caravan symbol in 1993. That year, U.S. agents impounded a small bus, but caravanistas refused to abandon it, launching a hunger strike and international campaign from the summer-sun-scorched impound lot in Laredo, Texas. The campaign ultimately forced the U.S. officials to let the bus go to Cuba.

U.S.-based doctors trained in Cuba at front of
tribute to Lucius Walker.
WW photo: Cheryl LaBash

After the anti-terrorist Cuban Five — Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González and René González — were unjustly convicted in 2001 and harshly sentenced, caravan buses and trucks decorated with the images of the Five helped publicize the struggle to free them along the caravan routes.

A miniature yellow school bus was placed in the Rev. Walker’s pine-box casket, which was surrounded by white floral tributes from former Cuban President Fidel Castro, current President Raúl Castro and the Cuban Mission. The Rev. Miriam Ofelia Ortega, a Presbyterian pastor, president of the World Council of Churches for Latin America and the Caribbean and a member of the Cuban Parliament, represented the Cuban leaders and people, particularly the children who have benefited from the caravans. She likened Walker’s work to Cuban independence leader José Martí’s 1894 call, in Nuestra América magazine, for a campaign of tenderness and opening our hands to others.

In 1967 the Rev. Walker became the founding director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, steering the organization to work in support of African liberation movements and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. IFCO was the first and one of the largest U.S. foundations led and controlled by people of color, working with organizations such as the American Indian Movement and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. In 1988, the Rev. Walker founded the IFCO project Pastors for Peace after U.S.-armed Nicaraguan contras attacked 200 civilians, wounding Walker. His daughter Gail, an IFCO leader herself, was with him.

In 1992, when the Cuban economy lost its Soviet and Eastern European trading partners to capitalist restoration, the U.S. government saw its opportunity to defeat the Cuban revolution. The U.S. tightened the economic blockade and allowed paramilitaries to escalate terror attacks, including hotel bombings, to damage Cuban income from tourism. The caravans began to counteract the U.S. government aim of creating havoc and hardship on the island. In a letter to the New York Times, Walker wrote, “We know that starving a third world country into submission is a morally bankrupt foreign policy.” (Aug. 15, 1993)

At the memorial Ellen Bernstein, co-director of IFCO/Pastors for Peace, and the Rev. Tom Smith, president of its board of directors, presented Walker’s living legacy — the U.S. graduates and students from the Latin American School of Medicine in Cuba. The program began when representatives of the Congressional Black Caucus visited Cuba and noted the number of doctors available. When Rep. Bennie Thompson said his Mississippi district needed doctors, President Fidel Castro announced scholarships for youth from underserved communities in the U.S. who apply through IFCO/Pastors for Peace. Currently 146 U.S. students study at LASM with full scholarships, including 16 in the new class. Forty-seven have graduated and two are residents in U.S. hospitals.

Narciso Ortiz, LASM graduate, said, “The most important thing he taught me is: All that matters is revolution. He didn’t talk much, but did much.” Melissa Barber expressed the condolences of the delegation of incredible, revolutionary doctors who learned the importance of being agents of social change. She recalled Walker telling the students not to settle for just graduating, encouraging them to do better. “I want to thank Lucius. Because of him my name is Dr. Melissa Barber,” she said in closing.

After the earthquake disaster in Haiti in February, the LASM graduates volunteered to serve there. A representative of the Haitian organization Lakou New York reported that the young doctors worked from sunup to sundown serving the people.

Zayid Mohammed presented a spoken word praise poem based on the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” that raised up the “insurgent commentary by Mumia Abu-Jamal” and ended calling for “witnesses organized to continue for this man; we need commitment, we need commitment; compañeros to the front; we refuse to back down; we will fight to the end. Revolution is needed here.”

Walker’s surviving brother William and daughter Donna represented the Walker family. Joining the wide representation of Cuba solidarity, socialist and progressive activists were Cuba’s United Nations Ambassador Pedro Núñez Mosquera; Nicaraguan Ambassador María Eugenia Rubiales de Chamorro; many members of, and the spirited choir from, Walker’s Salvation Baptist Church; New York City Councilperson and Freedom Party candidate for governor, Charles Barron; Ramsey Clark; and Akbar Mohammed of the Nation of Islam. Messages and resolutions from churches, individuals and elected officials, including congressional Reps. Charles Rangel, Jose Serrano and Maxine Waters, and author Jane Franklin were acknowledged.