In the spirit of solidarity

  • Barrier-breaking event: Alice Marble paved the way for Althea Gibson, the first African-American allowed to play in the US Open, in 1950

    Barrier-breaking event: Alice Marble paved the way for Althea Gibson, the first African-American allowed to play in the US Open, in 1950

On Labour Day 2018, while pushing a friend, Alvin Williams, in a wheelchair into a KEMH elevator, an acquaintance called out to me, that he thought that I would be at Union Square, at that time. His comment sparked the thought, that assisting someone with their regular dialysis treatment, captured the essence of the spirit of solidarity, the purpose of Labour Day.

The observance of this holiday in Bermuda, was a direct byproduct of the watershed of solidarity in the island in 1981. During that protracted strike of Bermuda Industrial Union government workers, Canon Thomas Nisbett, Reverend Larry Lowe and myself, formed the Strikers’ Family Support Committee, promoting a feeling of community connection in that crisis. The campaign yielded a reasonable supply of groceries and $7,000 cash, from diverse sources, within a fortnight.

The resulting collaborative climate promoted a spirit of solidarity throughout the island; notwithstanding the tension engendered by the crisis. It climaxed on May 5, 1981 with an historic one-day General Strike; including teachers (BUT) and Belco workers (ESTU) joining the entire BIU, for a paradigm shift in Bermuda. That grassroots effort had moved perspectives beyond “groups” or “boxes”.

A group of more than 100 people in Bermuda require sustained dialysis treatment; many with transportation challenges. Alvin Williams happens to be a dialysis patient who co-authored a book commissioned by the Labour Day Committee, because of his history demonstrating that the “pen was mightier than the sword”.

My voluntary role only addressed Alvin’s needs for one of three days per week this treatment requires. The importance of solidarity in this regard, is put into sharp relief, considering Bermuda’s high incidence of diabetes and other chronic diseases.

This week at the US Open will offer a global perspective of solidarity. It involves the unveiling of a statue of Althea Gibson, the first African-American allowed to play in the Open, in 1950. This barrier-breaking event came as a result of US Tennis Champion Alice Marble’s transformative editorial in the American Lawn Tennis Magazine, speaking truth to power. As a result of this act of solidarity, the US Open ended decades of discrimination by accepting Gibson’s participation in August 1950.

In subsequent years, Gibson went on to win the US Open women’s singles and doubles championships and eventually did the same at Wimbledon.

Alice Marble’s act involved reaching outside of the “box” of racial privilege to affirm solidarity.

In Bermuda, a few years before that sea-change in the US, Edwin Skinner transcended a “box” by responding to the requests of numerous parents, facing the fact that there were only two secondary schools available for black children on the island at that time.

The former principal of a segregated school — Cavendish — acted in solidarity by first opening his home and subsequently used the original Elliott School to provide a secondary education for a number of black students for some three years; until his untimely death.

The alumni benefiting from Skinner’s solidarity, included many; such as Ottiwell Simmons, Sir John Swan and Roosevelt Brown — three icons of 20th-century Bermuda.

Eddie DeJean continued that “spirit of solidarity” after Skinner’s death. He answered the parents’ call, as a 28-year-old father of two very young children, to take on the responsibility, with doubtful financial security. He led Howard Academy for over a decade and in spite of sizeable challenges, numerous students benefited and went on to make various contributions to Bermuda.

During that period, the British principal and the mathematics teacher of the Bermuda Technical Institute — Mr Dearnly and Clifford Maxwell — volunteered to assist students of their neighbours at Howard Academy tutoring them in chemistry and maths. This act of solidarity bolstered the “Cambridge” results, opening up access to a university education for the young people.

On July 18, 2019, iconic basketball player Steph Curry and his wife Ayesha launched a Foundation, “Eat, Learn, Play”, to address the needs of many American children facing challenges. Curry is following the example of the likes of Alice Marble, Harry Belafonte and other US figures who used their celebrity, demonstrating solidarity by promoting grassroots progress.

That said, it is actions of solidarity by those at the grass roots of society that can make a difference. Those volunteering in the many programmes by NGOs such as Red Cross, Family Centre, Meals on Wheels, the neighbour helping an elder and those many others acting out of solidarity, capture the spirit of this important holiday.

So, no matter where you find yourself over Labour Day weekend; please reflect on the various ways to play some part in promoting solidarity across our island, across our planet.

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Published Aug 29, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Aug 29, 2019 at 2:41 pm)

In the spirit of solidarity

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