What was supposed to be a “living tribute” to a Toronto civil-rights icon last Saturday instead became a posthumous memorial.
Lawyer, activist, and Caribana co-founder Charles Roach died at the age of 79 on Oct. 2, just days before the National Conference of Black Lawyers had scheduled a gala dinner in his honour at their annual conference—which had been moved from Memphis to Toronto this year, just to accommodate the gravely ill Roach, who hadn’t missed it in decades.
“Charles C. Roach: ordinary man, extraordinary results” read the evening program’s guide, a beaming portrait of Roach’s face beneath the caption. Over plates of coconut whitefish and rice, family and friends who had worked alongside Roach in the civil rights and black liberation movements spoke in testament of the man’s tireless work ethic and combative spirit—besides defending Black Panthers and others who fled to Canada in the ’60s and ’70s, Roach waged an ultimately futile, 50-year battle to become a Canadian citizen without swearing allegiance to the Queen.
“That was so characteristic,” said Chicago NCBL chair Stan Willis, chuckling as he remembered an Occupy Wall Street rally that marked his last encounter with Roach. “Whenever there is a movement, you move.”
Deborah Jackson, the mayor of Lithonia, Georgia, met Roach at her first NCBL conference in 1978. She recalled his tendency to break into song. “He always travelled with his guitar,” she said. (Roach was a sometimes calypso musician.)
Former Black Panther and NCBL member Jonathan Davis spoke with Roach two weeks prior to his passing: “He says to me, ‘Jonathan, I just want you to know, in spite of all this illness, I’m still strong,’” Davis said. “‘I’ve still got the spirit.’”
“All I could say is, ‘Charlie, I salute you, my brother.’ And we love you.”