Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sir Arthur Foulkes Pays Tribute to Warren Levarity

Tribute to Warren J. Levarity


• The following is a tribute given by Sir Arthur Foulkes at the state funeral for Warren Levarity on November 20 at Christ Church Cathedral.

On behalf of my wife, Joan, and on behalf of all the Foulkes family, and for myself, I extend to Warren’s wife, Vera, their children and all his other relatives my deepest sympathy on his passing. We share in your loss. I share in your loss.

My dear friends, it was a day or two after the 1962 general election in which the Progressive Liberal Party got more votes than the ruling United Bahamian Party but won far less seats. I was sitting at the head of the News Desk at The Tribune office on Shirley Street when Warren Levarity came up the stairs and entered the newsroom. I stood up to greet him.

There was no conversation. We embraced and said two words to each other: “My brother!” Then he turned, walked down the stairs and left the building. There were quizzical looks on the faces of those who witnessed this scene. Warren and I were both defeated candidates in that election, which many expected the PLP to win.

The significance of that brief encounter was that we were part of a group of men who knew the minds of each other. We understood what had happened and, more importantly, we knew what we had to do next.

It was an era of unrest, confrontation, and intense political activity in The Bahamas. Party politics had come to the colony; there was agitation for electoral reform; the trade unions were restive; Bahamian women were agitating for the vote; there was growing impatience with racism, and the ruling group was as intransigent as ever.

There were five bye-elections in 1960. Four in New Providence were mandated by British Secretary of State for the Colonies Alan Lennox-Boyd. He visited The Bahamas after the 1958 General Strike and ordered the creation of four new seats in New Providence as a concession to demands for electoral reform.

As expected, the PLP won all four of those seats. But the bye-election in Grand Bahama was another matter. It was the result of the elevation of the constituency’s representative to the Legislative Council, and nobody expected the PLP to win in a Family Island stronghold of the ruling party against a candidate supported by them.

So the party’s leaders gladly accepted the offer by Warren Levarity to show the colors in Grand Bahama. He was from a highly respected family having been born in West End. He had graduated from the Government High School and he had professional training abroad.

They also knew that he was a member of the National Committee for Positive Action, a radical group that was beginning to play an increasingly important role in the progressive movement. What few people knew was that this unassuming, soft-spoken gentleman was possessed of high intelligence, a keen analytical mind and an extraordinary aptitude for politics.

With only his limited personal resources and little or no help on the ground, Warren confronted the awesome election machinery of the oligarchy and campaigned across the length of the island. He won the bye-election, even though he had to petition the courts before he could take his seat as the representative for Grand Bahama.

Warren’s surprising victory sent shock waves through the political camps on all sides and was a major turning point in the fortunes of the progressive movement. A number of educated and highly qualified Bahamians who had hitherto looked askance at the PLP, and had kept their distance, now realized that if the UBP could be defeated in Grand Bahama then perhaps they could be defeated in the country. They joined the party.

After the defeat in 1962 the NCPA decided that the party’s image had to be burnished and its message more effectively tailored. It was time now for greater effort, and for personal sacrifice. Along with his colleagues, Warren did not believe in the kind of politics that was driven by the prevailing winds.

He shared an intense commitment to conviction politics, going against the prevailing winds if that was necessary. He shared the belief that leaders should work to change negative opinions, however popular, not pander to them.

He believed that leaders should communicate grand ideas and articulate noble aspirations, not mislead people with sound bites and empty slogans.

He also believed that leaders should be prepared to pay the price of their convictions, and not to seek the side on which the bread is buttered.

So in 1963, after months of garnering support, assembling resources and securing equipment, Bahamian Times started to publish from a little house on Wulff Road that had been converted into offices and a print shop. This effort was spearheaded by Loftus Roker, Jeffrey Thompson, Warren and others. Warren was manager and I was honored to be editor. This is what we knew we had to do.

There was little bread – and no butter at all – but the little house on Wulff Road became not just a newspaper office but a magnet for others who wanted to help, to talk about the challenges, to contribute ideas for the future, or just to share in the excitement.

One of those who came regularly to help in the day and stayed for many late nights of discourse was my good friend George Smith who became a successful candidate in 1968.

The response to Bahamian Times was quite astonishing. We could not print enough. People lined up outside the Wulff Road office to get copies as they came off the press. At long last, we were saying what they needed to hear, telling them what they deserved to know, and pointing in the direction they desired to go.

Calvin Neeley picked up newspaper boys Brendan and Dion in his taxi and took them as far as the airport to sell the paper. Each copy was handed from hand to hand and some were kept as mementos up to this day. But despite Warren’s best efforts, only a few small business houses were willing to advertise in the paper and so our bread was in short supply and sans butter.

Bahamian Times contributed significantly to the historic victory in 1967. Warren was appointed minister of out island affairs and demonstrated that he was not only good at politics but was also an excellent administrator. The work he accomplished in one year, with the cooperation of his colleague Minister of Works Cecil Wallace Whitfield, contributed significantly to the PLP’s overwhelming victory in the Out Islands in April of 1968.

Now it is difficult to find in history a good revolution that went entirely according to plan, one that fulfilled all of its noblest ideals, one that was not undermined by hubris, cupidity, egomania and other negative influences. The Quiet Revolution was not immune to some of these negative influences, and one of the early casualties of power was the collegiality that had made success possible in the first place.

The storm clouds gathered and, for Warren, euphoria quickly turned into disappointment. Once again his courage and willingness to sacrifice for what he believed were to be put to the test and once again he did not fail that test.

So on the floor of the House of Assembly one night in 1970, with an angry, hostile crowd outside, Warren, with seven others, voted the truth of his conscience, and precipitated a chain of events that was to result in the formation of a new political party, the Free National Movement.

It was effectively the end of his political career. He was never re-elected to the House again. But in later years he was secure in the knowledge that he had made yet another significant contribution to his country. He had helped to provide for the Bahamian people an effective check on the power of the day and a viable political alternative for the future.

If heroism is to be measured by service to noble ideals, by the performance of great deeds, by the exercise of extraordinary courage, and by the willingness to make great sacrifices, then Warren James Levarity fully qualified as a national hero of the first order.

Permit me to borrow from the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to say that the star of the unconquered will rose in Warren’s breast, serene, and resolute, and still, and calm and self-possessed.

May his noble soul rest in peace.


Sir Arthur Foulkes is a former member of Parliament, Cabinet minister and governor general.

November 26, 2014