IF I'VE HEARD it once since President Reagan died, I've heard it a dozen times.
"Reagan didn't do anything for black people."
Since Reagan was elected president of all Americans, you have to wonder from whence came the notion that he, or any other American president, should do anything "for" one particular ethnic or racial group. Still, the argument can be made that Reagan did for black people what he did for Americans of every other race and ethnicity: He tried his best to disabuse us of the notion that the federal government is our mommy and daddy. It was Reagan, more than any other president of the last half of the 20th century, who reminded us that the Founding Fathers meant for our Constitution to be a limit on the powers of the federal government, not a license for the expansion of its powers we've seen since the New Deal.
Still, there is at least one group of black people Reagan most certainly did do something "for." They live on the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada.
It was Reagan who ordered American troops - along with a multinational Caribbean force - to invade Grenada and free it from Marxist thugs in October 1983. Anyone who doubts that the invasion was beneficial to Grenadians needs to listen to the tale of Leslie Pierre, the publisher and editor of two newspapers during the time of the "revolution" that took place in 1979 when the Marxist New Jewel Movement overthrew Prime Minister Eric Gairy and installed a "People's Revolutionary Government" that, among other things, jailed dissidents and stifled a free press.
Pierre was one of the "revolution's" victims. He told me his story last August.
No journalist who visits the Grenadian capital of St. George's should pass on the opportunity to take the trip along the Carenage - the city's scenic waterfront - through a tunnel that runs along Melville Street and stop at address No. 10. The sign on the front will read "Grenadian Optical," but if visitors walk to the stairs in the back and hike the three flights to the top, they'll find Pierre - white-haired but still chipper - ensconced in his office cluttered with newspapers and books.
"I knew the government was going to lock me up," Pierre said of that June day in 1981 when the PRG did precisely that. He wasn't surprised because the government had shut down another of his newspapers, The Torchlight, shortly before. Pierre had run an interview with some Rastafarians who were disenchanted with the "revolution." The PRG had come to power with Rastafarian support, but in no time one of the leaders of the religious sect known for using marijuana was criticizing the regime for "not freeing up the proper cultural use of the herb."
Don't drive yourself nuts trying to understand that last quote. For the purposes of this narrative, you need only know that Pierre had one paper shut down and was jailed in June 1981 for starting another, The Grenadian Voice, which he still publishes and edits today. He knew he wouldn't get out, he said, unless the Americans invaded.
It's a good thing for Pierre and the hundreds of other dissidents on PRG lockdown that Reagan was in office and President Carter hadn't been re-elected. When a dispute erupted within the PRG between factions loyal to Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and "hard-liner" Marxist Bernard Coard in 1983, Reagan saw his chance to act.
Bishop was under house arrest when a crowd of his supporters freed him. They went to Fort Rupert, where Grenadian army units loyal to the Coard faction tried to dislodge them. After a gun battle, Bishop, his mistress and seven others were lined up against a wall and machine-gunned to death.
The Coard faction imposed martial law and a dawn-to-dusk, shoot-to-kill curfew. Reagan was criticized for invading Grenada on the "pretext" of protecting endangered American students at St. George's medical school. But C.V. Rao, an administrator at the school who was there in 1983, (yeah, I talked to him, too) said he and the students, with teenage PRG "soldiers" running around with AK-47s after the butchering of the prime minister, felt they were very much in danger.
How did the inhabitants of this overwhelmingly black Caribbean island react to the invasion ordered by Reagan? Some opposed it and still do. But Pierre said he was freed immediately thereafter. So were other dissidents. After he got out, Pierre said he heard the tales of how Grenadians waved at American troops shouting "We love you!" Others invited American soldiers into their homes for meals.
Graffiti still on some walls in St. George's tells the story. "Thank God for U.S. and Caribbean heroes of freedom," reads one. "Thank you, U.S.A. for liberating us," reads another.
Those African-Americans who believe Reagan "did nothing for black people" need to try telling that to the very black people of Grenada, freed from four years of Marxist terror courtesy of one Ronald Wilson Reagan.