LONDON, Dec 31 (Reuters) - Fifty years ago Martin Luther King departed from a prepared speech to electrify and exalt a quarter of a million people packed into Washington by inviting them to share his dream of a nation in which all men and women would finally be equal regardless of colour.
During the same year, Nelson Mandela faced the gallows when he went on trial for sabotage waged during an underground campaign to force the South African authorities to abandon their vicious racial separation laws.
And in England, West Indian migrants queued for hours in the hope of watching a cricket team captained by a black man conquer their colonial masters five years after the Notting Hill riots had highlighted growing racial tensions throughout the country.
As if to underscore a tumultuous year, an extraordinary book, subsequently acclaimed by the English poet, cricket writer and broadcaster John Arlott as the finest ever written about the game of cricket, was also published.
Like all sporting classics and, as its title explicitly promises, “Beyond a Boundary” by C.L.R James is about far more than a ball game. It is instead based on the “clash of race, caste and class” on and off the field in Britain’s former slave colonies.
The final chapter of James’s masterpiece describes the triumph of the 1960-61 West Indies team in Australia led by Frank Worrell, the black Barbadian who went on to captain the wonderful 1963 side in England.
Before the team was selected James had carried out an unsparing newspaper campaign in his native Trinidad to get Worrell installed as captain in place of the incumbent white man Gerry Alexander.
“I would have been able to keep it up for 50 weeks, for there was 50 years’ knowledge of discrimination behind it and corresponding anger,” wrote James.
George Headley, the Jamaican maestro who carried the hopes and aspirations of black English-speaking West Indians on his shoulders during the 1930s when he systematically subdued the best bowlers fielded by either England or Australia, led West Indies in a home test after World War Two.
But neither he nor any other black man was given the honour of leading a West Indies side overseas until Worrell was finally chosen as captain for the Australia series.
Alexander, a fine wicketkeeper-batsman and a dignified man who excelled under Worrell, remains the last white man to captain West Indies.
After a succession of stumbling performances in the state matches, Worrell’s men went on to play a full part in the first tied test match and were unlucky to lose the series to the unofficial world champions.
More importantly, their exuberance, skills and total commitment to attacking cricket revived a moribund game and a crowd equivalent in size to the one which listened to King poured on to the streets of Melbourne to bid them farewell.
“Clearing their way with bat and ball, West Indians at that moment had made a public entry into the comity of nations,” James concluded.
A glance at the index to “Beyond a Boundary”, indicates the breadth and scope of the interests and life of a Marxist intellectual who was born in Trinidad in 1901 and died in the London suburb of Brixton in 1989.
Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who James knew, precedes England fast bowler Fred Trueman. Black American boxer Joe Louis, victor over German Max Schmeling in a world title fight which gripped the world’s imagination as it hurtled towards a global war, is followed by Toussaint L‘Ouverture.
L‘Ouverture, the slave who became the architect of the Haitian revolution, the only successful slave revolt in history, is the protagonist of James’s epic 1938 book “The Black Jacobins”.
In a play based on the book, American singer, actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson played the part of L‘Ouverture.
To the bewilderment of some otherwise admiring American reviewers, James, who was expelled from the United States because of his communist beliefs during the McCarthy era, cites his three primary influences as English literature, cricket and the fierce moral code of Thomas Arnold’s Rugby School, which demanded strict adherence to the laws of games and the officials’ decisions. Before he was 10, wrote James, he was a British intellectual.
James’s widow Selma, who typed the manuscript of “Beyond a Boundary”, grew up in Brooklyn where the summer game was baseball, chronicled evocatively in another sports classic “The Boys of Summer”.
Coincidentally, Roger Kahn’s account of the 1950s’ Brooklyn Dodgers and their post-baseball lives contains at its heart the struggles and ultimate triumph of Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play in the major leagues in the modern era.
Selma accompanied James to England after his expulsion from the United States and was intrigued by cricket, the summer game spread by England to its various colonies where it was further shaped by native climes and characters.
A feminist and anti-racist activist, writer and lecturer she took time out from her busy schedule at the Crossroads Women’s Centre in London’s Kentish Town recently to share her memories of James and “Beyond a Boundary”.
“It (cricket) gives deep insight into human personality,” Selma James said. “It’s exciting. I found it really exciting. It tells me about human beings and that’s what interested me. I‘m not a sportswoman, and I never was, but the important thing was that cricket gave you important insights into human personality.”
One of the personalities was Yorkshire opening batsman Len Hutton, who stoically defied the might of the Australian fast bowlers in the immediate post-war year before becoming the first professional cricketer to captain England.
While West Indies cricket, as James describes with a dispassionate but forensic clarity in the opening chapters of “Beyond a Boundary”, was blighted by racism, caste and class. English cricket for much of its existence was divided by class. Amateurs (called gentleman) occupied one dressing room, professionals (known as players), the other.
Only amateurs had the honour of captaining their country, until the authorities bowed to the inevitable and appointed Hutton, who promptly led England to home and away Ashes victories.
“Len Hutton was the framework of CLR’s campaign to make Frank Worrell captain,” Selma James continued. “It was really the common man who comes from below who is the superior. He makes his way up to the officer class. That’s what happened to Len Hutton and that’s what happened to Frank Worrell.”
The breadth of “Beyond a Boundary”, and its maxim which has entered the English language “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” is staggering.
James gives exquisite pen portraits of Headley, fast bowler George John, opening batsman Wilton St. Hill and his close friend Learie Constantine.
Constantine, a great all-rounder whose test figures do not do justice to his prowess, was unable to get a job in Trinidad. Consequently, James wrote, he “revolted against the revolting contrast between his first-class status as a cricketer and his third-class status as a man”, and emigrated to England where he made his name in the Lancashire Leagues and eventually became the first black peer to sit in the House of Lords.
“Beyond a Boundary” also visits classical Greece, berates English historians for ignoring the impact of the Victorian cricket colossus W.G. Grace and argues that cricket is an art form as well as a game comparable to “the theatre, ballet, opera and the dance”.
”There is a chapter on Wilton St. Hills, that’s a chapter of a novelist,“ said Selma. ”There’s a chapter on W.G. Grace, that’s a chapter of a historian. There’s a chapter on ‘What is Art?', that’s a chapter of an art historian. I knew that he had studied each of the subjects. He had his own view and it was an original view.
“As an historian he not only knew English history, he knew French history. CLR was the sort of person who would read a book and read it many times.”
“Beyond a Boundary” and C.L.R. James’ unifying vision formed part of a movement which in sport was to lead to a boycott of South African sports teams until Mandela was released after 27 years in prison and black power salutes on an Olympic podium in 1968.
“‘Beyond a Boundary’ did a very good job for the West Indies, not merely for cricket but for the West Indies,” said Selma James. “It really was a deeply anti-racist book in the sense that it helped people who loved cricket to be less racist. It helped them and I think that was crucial.”
Editing by Ed Osmond