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Parliamentary wrangling

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This is an excerpt from Walton Brown’s book on Bermuda’s political history “Bermuda and the Struggle for Reform: Race, Politics and Ideology, 1944-1998.” It will be available on August 10.

Although the BWA was, by the 1950s, an institution which had all but exhaled its last breath a consequence of the restrictive 1946 trade union legislation its quest for social and political reform would be successfully taken up by two grass-roots movements. These movements carved an important historical place for themselves in that they accomplished in a relatively short period of time what years of parliamentary wrangling and status quo politics had failed to achieve. The struggle for an end to racial segregation in the movie theatres and the campaign to win adult suffrage for all Bermudians demonstrated the power of direct action by organised blacks and workers. However much these important advances for workers and black Bermudians symbolised the strength inherent in collective responses to socio-political problems, they also brought further into relief the dichotomy which emerged through the BWA under Gordon: a sharp distinction in the tactics, policies and proposals by the acknowledged black/working class leadership and those advanced by the rank and file membership. What is inherently different about this later stage in the working class struggle for social reform is that when workers feel their issues and concerns are not being adequately addressed by their leadership they initiate action themselves rather than retreat into passivity.

In addition to the divide in strategy between the leadership and the masses, other themes discussed in previous chapters ring with striking familiarity and would lay the foundation for political discourse and mobilisation during the age of democracy. The salience of racial ideology that prism through which all struggles are refracted continues to inform the struggle for, and the resistance to, reform; further, it obfuscates the class strategies pursued by racial elites. These efforts to win reform further support the proposition that social change benefiting workers is least likely to take place when reliance is placed on the established channels of political participation and power broking. Perhaps more importantly, agreements decided upon without sensitivity to the concerns of workers will, as Gramsci observed, “only have any meaning in parliament; it will be binding on the leaders, but will have no value for the masses”.

Ending Racial Segregation: Class Politics/Class Strategies

Racial segregation in Bermuda, as late as the 1950s, was much akin to racist practices in the United States and South Africa, although in Bermuda it was largely accomplished by custom and practice without signs. The context for this has been detailed already, but two instances of this policy of racial exclusion during the 1950s both of which gained attention in the international media symbolised the white ruling elite’s refusal even to offer minor concessions as well as the impotence of the black leadership. A black Guyanese politician, Edwin McDavid, was, in July1953, en route from his country to London to receive a knighthood, when his airplane was forced to land in Bermuda due to mechanical problems. When he attempted to check into the St George’s Hotel he was informed that while his white companions would be accepted, he and his wife would have to go to one of the (few) hotels which offered blacks accommodations. McDavid protested this by returning to the airport and remaining there all night until the plane was ready to depart. The six black Members of Colonial Parliament sent a letter of protest to the Governor, but it seems they were more affronted because the policy was directed at a dignitary rather than the principle itself.

Some months later, in October, following her coronation, Queen Elizabeth II visited Bermuda as part of her tour of British territories. At a state dinner held as part of the programme, 30 persons were invited, but not one of them was black. It was not until the British media condemned this slur on black Bermudians and people of colour, more generally ”Sir Alexander Hood, Governor of Bermuda, has contrived to celebrate the start of the Queen’s tour throughout the Commonwealth by insulting more than 500,000,000 of its inhabitants”, wrote The Daily Herald that the black leadership commented on the matter. It appears, then, that during this era Bermuda’s black/working class leadership would be more reactive in its approach to social and political issues rather than setting the pace for reform.

Association for Bermudian Affairs

It was against the backdrop of practices such as these that black Bermudians and some whites sought ways to bring an end to segregationist policies. Toward the end of the 1940s a group of middle class Bermudians formed a group called the Association for Bermudian Affairs; members included Hilton and Georgine Hill, Carol Hill, Eva Robinson, Fred Barnes, Yvonne Blackett and David Critchley, the only white member. This group met for a number of years and discussed ways of dealing with a number of social problems from racism and the restricted franchise to ruling class tactics to divide Bermudians and the cost of living. Eventually they put these ideas together in a pamphlet entitled An Analysis of Bermuda’s Social Problems. The fear of directly challenging Bermuda’s dominant class, which so typified the middle class resistance, was evident in their strategy: they were careful to retain their anonymity with this detailed indictment of Bermuda by having the document printed in Canada and expunging any indication of authorship. The ABA’s pamphlet identified the roots of Bermuda’s social problems in racism and the limited franchise and then proceeded to give consideration of its ramifications for Bermuda along with a programme of action for solving these problems.

One of the strategies pursued by the ABA was to protest the segregationist policy at one of the movie theatres, the Play House. The group’s members handed out leaflets condemning the racist practice and then proceeded into the theatre separately and sat in the section designated for whites; once the theatre management realised the ABA’s strategy, they instructed the ushers to leave them alone and devised a response typical of the white ruling class: an attempt at creating division within the black community. Two directors of the theatre M.A Gibbons and William J Young proposed the ABA provide them with a list of “nice coloured” Bermudians who in turn would be allowed to sit in the white section. This was immediately rejected by the ABA as a thinly veiled racial insult and there was no shift at all in theatre segregationist policy.

Despite the efforts of the ABA and its vision of a reformed Bermuda this association was not able to generate mass support. This can be partially explained in that there was never any attempt to directly involve or mobilise black workers and thus the ABA could easily be perceived as an aloof middle-class entity. Their lack of success at winning social reform notwithstanding, this group did manage to push the House of Assembly to consider, once again, the question of race and racial practices in Bermuda.

Parliamentary Select Committee on Race Relations

In April 1953, a select parliamentary committee was appointed to consider the race question. This group of black and white Members of Colonial Parliament would meet for eight months and report to the House late January 1954 after lengthy consideration of a detailed agenda. The agenda included consideration of occupational opportunities for blacks in government service, institutions subsidised by the government and those in the private sector. It also included the problems of segregation in government or aided organisations; non-governmental and unaided organisations; and Trade Development Policy toward black tourists. Finally, this committee examined black political representation and immigration policy. Never before had a group of politicians met to consider at length the question of race and there were quite high expectations that these legislators would recognise the need to introduce immediate reforms. As the Committee itself observed:

“We have recognised that never before, so far as is known, has a Committee of the House been appointed for the sole purpose of considering the vital matter of racial relations. Accordingly the members of the Committee have felt a great responsibility to achieve by unanimity, if possible, agreements and understandings which it is hoped will advance racial harmony and the community welfare.”

The introductory remarks in the report, however, quickly dispersed any hope that the fundamental issues of concern to blacks would be addressed in a meaningful manner. While the Committee recognised that “racial tension has increased in these Islands within the last ten years” and a continuance “must lead to serious difficulties” their proposals would be seriously limited by a number of self-serving caveats:

“We have appreciated that reforms, however necessary and advisable, must win acceptance and that the goal must be towards steady progress, with the minimum dislocation of government services and the private sensibilities of all sections of the community. We are conscious too, that due regard must be had to the protection of our travel industry, the major means of our livelihood. It is always debatable what effects, if any, more liberal policies might have on the tourist trade but it seems clear that some caution is justified. In spite of anti-discrimination legislation abroad it is evident that prejudice has, by no means, been eradicated. In the development of the policies which this Report recommends, we must be careful to keep our reforms in line with the generally accepted conditions of the countries from which we get a majority of our visitors, if we are to avoid the risk of endangering our vital trade interests ... We have endeavoured to be fair but realistic and we consider our recommendations go far towards removing existing grievances.”

When considering the question of occupational opportunities for blacks, the committee noted that within the civil service two considerations were paramount: maintaining full efficiency and a policy free from racial discrimination. But the committee contradicted itself in dealing with this issue. On the one hand, they argued they did not want to create “unhappy conditions in the Service” and thought “the immediate treatment of some final objectives should be tempered by practical considerations.” On the other hand, they accepted that (p)rogress in opening the Service to coloured people should ... be expedited. With respect to employment in the private sector, the committee accepted that government must demonstrate leadership in the area of better opportunities for blacks but felt it was “most inadvisable to enact any legislation in Bermuda to force private employers to accept employees not of their choice.”

On the topic of racial segregation in the private and public sectors, the committee clearly demonstrated its support for the existing practices. The Bermuda Tennis Stadium, a set of courts built by government, excluded blacks from playing except for two weeks each year. This committee proposed building another stadium for blacks and allow “the present arrangements of the Bermuda Tennis Stadium be left undisturbed.” In the interests of pride in the traditions of the Bermuda Militia and the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps the continuance of these racially segregated units was supported by the committee; racial segregation in the schools was supported because the “social difficulties and resentments, which would be engendered if the schools were integrated, do not justify such radical departure from existing policies.” And in dealing with public places providing amusement, entertainment or refreshment restaurants and cinemas, for example but also churches, the committee noted that some places excluded blacks altogether, whereas others had a policy of preferred seating. Their conclusion was that “proprietors of private enterprises must retain the right of approving the clientele which they propose to solicit.”

Led by future government leader Henry Tucker, this group of white and black politicians refused to endorse any significantly new racial policy. As members of Bermuda’s ruling class controlling an undemocratic state and with no organised mass resistance from below, the white MCPs had little to gain by proposing racially progressive policy. As we saw during the early years of the BWA, the ruling class technique was one of calculated accommodation in response to a clear and immediate danger to its interests. There was, however, no such threat in 1954. For their part, the black members of the committee including EF Gordon demonstrated the problems inherent when a disjuncture exists between the masses and their acknowledged leaders. These men sat on that committee intending to secure advance for blacks but came out with nothing to be proud of; and their signatures on the final document not even a minority report would send a message to blacks/workers in Bermuda that they must act for themselves if they were to win reforms.

Georgine Hill protested against the Bermudiana Theatre Club's white only policy in 1951.
Civil rights action in the 1950s: From the left are ?the producer? (name unknown), Georgine Hill, Mr Hill, Earl Perinchief.

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Published August 03, 2011 at 7:00 am (Updated August 02, 2011 at 6:58 pm)

Parliamentary wrangling

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