Saturday, June 15, 2013

Anniversary Of The 1959 Bermuda Theatre Boycott

One of the consistent themes for those of us of African descent living in our various parts of the Diaspora is having to deal with anti-Black bigotry, racism and racial segregation.

We have the common thread in various nations across the African Diaspora having a person or persons who either by circumstances or through group coordinated action participated in events that served as tipping point moments for oppressed African descended people in their nation to rally around and eventually achieve or start down the path of getting racial justice.  

In Canada that person was Viola Desmond.   In the United States it was Rosa Parks December 1, 1955 arrest that triggered the 381 day Montgomery Bus Boycott, gave national prominence to an eloquent young minister and gave birth to the African-American civil rights movement.  In South Africa that person was Nelson Mandela.  

In Bermuda the seminal event that ended segregation there was the June 1959 Theatre Boycott that put the British colony on track to beginning the process of creating a better, more racially harmonious society.   

File:Flag-map of Bermuda.pngIn 1959 Bermuda was approaching the 350th anniversary of its founding as a British colony and was a thriving travel and tourist destination for wealthy Americans, people that lived on the US east coast and other international travelers wishing to escape their cold climates.  

And for many of those upscale American tourists Bermuda reminded them of all the Jim Crow comforts back home. 

But the 28,000 Black Bermudians living there at the time chafed at the Jim Crow like segregation they were subjected to in its hotels, restaurants, schools, theaters, hospitals and other aspects of Bermudian life.

Borrowing from the example of the African-American civil rights movement now playing out before the world's press, they decided it was past time to end that discriminatory paradigm. 

Since the entire island attended the six white-owned segregated Bermuda General Theatres, a group of Bermudians desiring a better government, universal suffrage and an end to segregation held a series of meetings to coordinate a boycott of those segregated theaters timed to start on June 15. 

The Progressive Group as they called themselves was comprised of Vera and Rudolph ­Commissiong, Izola and Gerald Harvey, William Francis, Florenz and Clifford Maxwell, Stanley Ratteray, Marva Phillips, Esme and Lancelot Swan, Erskine Simmons, ­Clifford Wade, Eduord and Rosalind Williams, Coolridge Williams, Eugene Woods and William Walwyn.

The Progressive Group was also an airtight secret one that would remarkably maintain that secrecy until they revealed their identities 40 years later.  They feared not only retribution from the ruling white oligarchy on the island, they were worried about retaliation against their parents and their future employment prospects in Bermuda.  There was also the concern that since some of the group members were young people, they wouldn't be taken seriously by their elders. 

In addition to the other concerns, secrecy and surprise were key elements in getting this protest started and having the desired effect.  The members of the Progressive Group were rigorously vetted before being allowed to join.  In order to maintain the strict operational security they were barred from revealing even to their spouses what they discussed at the meetings held at Rosalind Williams' home.

Canadian visitors Anna Wheal and Ruth Cordy, who were staying with the Harvey's while visiting their college classmate Betty Kawaley, bought the printing press the Progressive Group used to create the flyers that later blanketed the island.  They also kept their roles in the boycott secret until 2009.   

At 10:30 PM on June 11 the members of  the Progressive Group began the first nerve wracking phase of the protest.  They synchronized their watches, scattered to different locations on the island and without being detected executed a coordinated drop of the flyers and posters across various locations around Bermuda announcing the boycott and its start date. 

Richard Lynch and Kingsley Tweed didn't have those secrecy reservations.  Once the boycott started on June 15, they appeared at the rallies organized to exhort Black Bermudians to support it and energized the crowds with their fiery street corner speeches.   .

After the posters and flyers appeared, the boycott began
slowly and was arrogantly dismissed as a 'storm in a teacup' by the white ruling class.   But they were premature in their smug assessment of the situation. 

Over the next eight days the Theatre Boycott gathered steam thanks to Lynch and Tweed's rally oratory and the determination of Black Bermudians.  The boycott crippled the movie theaters to the point they had to shut down on June 23.  The rattled theater owners and white establishment demanded that the Progressive Group come out of hiding to negotiate with them but they refused as Black Bermudians continued in solidarity to adhere to the boycott. .  

The theater owners capitulated on July 2 and desegregated the theaters.  The hotels, shops, banks and other public establishments in Bermuda soon followed in rapid succession.

The Theatre
Boycott succeeded beyond the wildest hopes of the organizers.  It ended segregation in Bermuda's public places in a matter of days.  A year later the Committee for Universal Adult Suffrage was formed with the twin goals of extending the right to vote for people ages 21 and older and eliminating the property requirement and implemented in 1961. 

It also jump started a long debate on the future social direction of Bermuda and despite some bumps along the way toward achieving it, helped Bermuda evolve toward a society that was was cognizant of the hopes , dreams and expectations of the majority of Bermudians.

The Theatre Boycott also emphatically demonstrated the value of nonviolent protest as the primary means to accomplish that systemic change. 

TransGriot Note: The photo is of four members of the Progressive Group that organized the Theatre Boycott.

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