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<b>BOYCOTT: `We were just ordinary people who had a mission' </b>

<b>BOYCOTT: `We were just ordinary people who had a mission' </b> By Kim Dismont-Robinson The Royal Gazette, June 16, 1999 pg 21

BOYCOTT: `We were just ordinary people who had a mission' By Kim Dismont-RobinsonThe Royal Gazette, June 16, 1999 pg 21´Don't use violence. Don't block traffic. Don't get excited. Don't give up.' - the Progressive Group.*^*^*Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Bermuda Theatre Boycott, an event many mark as one of the most important chapters in local history.The boycott, which began on June 16, 1959 and ended on July 1, 1959, started a domino effect of social change which led to the desegregation of theatres, restaurants and hotels in Bermuda.The Committee for Universal Adult Suffrage formed as a direct result of the boycott, which led to voting rights for a vast number of Bermudians previously denied those rights.Although the theatre boycott was orchestrated by an anonymous organisation called the Progressive Group, the individuals responsible for this monumental event were pledged to secrecy and never revealed themselves until years after the successful end of the boycott.Beyond Barriers, along with a cross-section of the religious community, the Human Rights Commission and the Committee for Unity and Racial Equality, convinced the group to tell their story for historical reasons.And the anniversary of the boycott will be marked by ecumenical services at noon today on the steps of City Hall, a community dialogue at Astwood Hall tomorrow at 7.30 p.m. entitled ´Looking Back to Draw Lessons to Move Forward´ and a cultural celebration to be aired on July 1 at 8 p.m. on ZBM.Beyond Barriers co-ordinator Glenn Fubler said the boycott is one of the most significant events in Bermuda's social history since Emancipation.And he noted: ´We recognise that true community can only be built when people embrace their entire heritage. ´Three of the individuals -- Marva Phillips, Clifford Maxwell and Stanley Ratteray -- agreed to speak with The Royal Gazette about the boycott - an event which fundamentally altered the social fabric of this Island.Dr. Maxwell and Mrs. Phillips explained that the Progressive Group was a secret organisation, and because of the social climate in Bermuda it was necessary to organise the boycott without revealing their identity.´At that particular time, if anyone stepped out of line -- especially if you were of the black race -- the things they did to put you back in line were to hit you where it really hurt by calling in your mortgage or calling in your parents' mortgage, ´ said Mrs. Phillips.´We wanted to protect our parents, and yet we wanted to carry on with our ultimate goal -- so rather than be squashed by letting them have their economic control, we decided to be completely secret,' she added.Mrs. Phillips said another reason for the secrecy was that the group didn't want individual personalities or personal agendas to get in the way of progress.´That's one reason I'm glad we were secretive -- it didn't boost our egos and we can look at it as something we did for our Island home, ´ she noted.And Dr. Maxwell added: ´(The complete secrecy) worked to our advantage because in the middle of the boycott, when the `powers that be' wanted to negotiate, they had nobody to negotiate with because they didn't know who we were.´Therefore, we laid down the mantle that the theatres were going to remain closed, and they couldn't call us or our parents and try to wheedle us into their office.´Also, we were appealing to the broad mass of the population and we avoided the infighting that sometimes takes place where people would say `well, who does he think he is' -- that sort of thing, ´ he chuckled.´We had a measure of solidarity because we couldn't be singled out even by our own people. The important thing was the movement, who was in charge was unimportant.'The group never consisted of more than about 20 people. Members of the group were selected very carefully, where existing members would put names forth and discuss whether they could be trusted for the task.And if any member of the group thought there was something wrong, then that person would not be included.´Although some were invited in, because of fear -- and you couldn't blame them -- some of the older ones who had a lot more to lose than we did dropped out. But to their credit, they never revealed who we were,' said Mrs. Phillips.Mrs. Phillips explained that most of the organisers of the boycott were students who had been treated like first-class citizens in other countries.´Take for instance, when I was in London we were invited by the Queen to sit in her royal box for an opera. When I reflected on that, I thought `here in my own country, I cannot sit where I desire', ´ said Mrs. Phillips.´When we ventured to other hotels and restaurants, I remembered in London you just had to have the money -- but here in Bermuda you were denied entry because of the colour of your skin, ´ she added.She said many students had similar feelings when they returned home in the late 50s, and decided to group together after recognising the injustices they faced in Bermuda.The group met secretly at one of the member's homes ´at all hours of the day and night´ under the guise that they were gathering together to play croquet.´One time we had a scare where the Police had become suspicious -- so we put everything away into the ceiling of the house and then went outside and played croquet like we were having a party, ´ said Mrs. Phillips.Dr. Maxwell said initially, the theatre boycott was not the main thrust of the group's plan -- they were concerned about discrimination and wanted to improve the society through a change in Government.´Our initial idea was to set up the foundation for a Government which would deal with all the injustices that were taking place, ´ said Dr. Maxwell.´As we got together, many of us were put in charge of different Ministries that we concocted and had to write reports on these various Ministries, ´ he chuckled.´As we were meeting, it was thought that we needed something to gain the attention of the people -- and the thing which attracted everybody was the fact that the theatres were segregated, so we used that as a means to try out our hand, ´ he noted.And Mrs. Phillips added: ´Yes, it was a by-product to see whether the people were behind us -- it was a stepping stone to our ultimate goal. As a matter of fact, we didn't expect to get all that we did, or so quickly. ´´It was the catalyst that started everything -- the theatres, then the restaurants, then the hotels, which led to universal franchise. It set things in motion,' said Dr. Maxwell.´But we were just looking at seeing if we could eliminate a lot of the injustices that happened to people because of the colour of their skin, ´ said Mrs. Phillips.´Many of us, in one way or another, still have been trying to battle the injustices that we still see in society today.´At that time, we were amazed at the response…but you've also got to realise what was happening in the world at this particular time, which we did not realise except in hindsight, ´ said Mrs. Phillips.´There was a Black Power movement in the United States and all around the world they were speaking out against injustices.´We just put things out there to see how it would go, and we were surprised at the reception we received from the public.´We guided it from behind the scenes. There were certain individuals like Kingsley Tweed who wanted to get up on the soapbox and speak to the people, and he was very competent at speaking.´We fed him information -- he didn't know where it was coming from -- and by his speeches and other people's speeches, the movement gained momentum.´But it just seemed like they were ready to do something about it. At first, The Royal Gazette laughed at it -- we tried to get letters to all the households and couldn't figure out how to do it.´They thought they were jeering at us, but The Royal Gazette did us a favour by printing the letter for us -- and helped us to get the message to the masses. ´Mrs. Phillips and Dr. Maxwell said the Progressive Group emphasised the need to obey the laws and demonstrate peacefully, but there was an anxiety about things spinning out of control.´We kept stressing non-violence, but here was our concern: we knew we were responsible for those thousand people marching around in front of the theatre, ´ said Dr. Maxwell.´Supposing they rioted and destroyed the whole of Hamilton? Once those lot got up on soapboxes, we couldn't control it even though we kept saying `peaceful, peaceful, peaceful', ´ he added.´To announce the boycott, we went out in twos at 2 o'clock in the morning -- and when everybody woke that morning, there were posters everywhere across the entire Island, ´ said Mrs. Phillips.´On the first night of the boycott, a few did go in and of course whites went in …but on the third night, there was no one entering and that's when they decided to close down.´But one of the most important things I realised at that time was that there's strength in unity.´If we stick together as a group, we can bring pressure to cause change. … I guess in hindsight, it was phenomenal. ´Stanley Ratteray, who was the president of the Progressive Group, said the most important effect of the boycott besides desegregation was the sense of confidence it gave black Bermudians.´It was, especially upon reflection, a particularly important time in Bermuda because it hastened desegregation…. I think everything picked up speed with the success of the boycott, ´ said Dr. Ratteray.´And if anything, it gave black people a collective confidence that they could make changes. …heretofore, their efforts to protest left a mark, but it didn't collectively make all of Bermuda feel that `we now have a case',' he added.´On the onset of our efforts, we didn't think in terms of these grand results -- we just looked at what we needed to do, and this was a `do-able' event.´It was a very intoxicating experience. …I can't say I was nervous although I was apprehensive, and I didn't look at it from the point of view of what sanctions might be taken.´But primarily from my perspective, the secret was to get the support that we might not ordinarily have gotten (if we had shed our anonymity) because we were all essentially very unimportant and unknown people.´We were just ordinary people who, you could say now, had a mission. When you look back on it, we must have felt that it was our mission because a lot of hard work went into doing all this.´In fact, one of my colleagues was seven months pregnant at the time and went around with me putting up posters. … It was a real team effort.´It gave black people the confidence to get on a project of significant value to themselves, and if there are a significant number of people who feel dispossessed, they must know based on what we achieved that with careful planning and effort, they can make change. ´Eva Hodgson, who wrote a book on the boycott entitled ´A Storm in a Teacup´, reflected on the present-day ramifications of the historic event.´We still need as a black community to come together to achieve other substantive goals, ´ said Dr. Hodgson.´The most fundamental issue during the theatre boycott was the separation of the races to imply the inferiority of the blacks in relation to whites. … The economic impact of that centuries-old separation is still very much with us.´The lesson we should've learned then -- but haven't seemed to have learned -- is that when the black community comes together to achieve certain goals, they can be successful.'

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Published February 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm (Updated February 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm)

<b>BOYCOTT: `We were just ordinary people who had a mission' </b>

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