Danger and opportunity, 50 years apart
Looking back on 2018 has led me to reflect on 1968, half a century earlier. Both periods involved danger and opportunity. Contrasting the two years highlights the power of perspective. On what am I focusing?
While 1968 was the most tumultuous year of the later 20th century, during that December, people around the world were offered an inspiring new image.
The global media featured the first-time photo of the Earth rising over the Moon, taken by Apollo 8 astronauts, on Christmas Eve, 1968. This picture continues to remind us of the importance of perspective; nurturing an awareness of global connectedness.
We have been reminded of that connectedness in 2018 in various ways. None more potent than during early December, when representatives from nearly 200 countries gathered in Poland for the 24th UN Conference on Climate Change.
In spite of US President Donald Trump, the world's most powerful leader, vigorously opposing constructive action on this vital matter, the hundreds of delegates successfully reached consensus on a key goal.
Knowing the challenge of families agreeing on Christmas plans, we can all appreciate the implications of this collaboration by representatives of billions of people.
In spite of the challenges thrown up during 1968, it did offer insights into “connectedness”. Just to summarise the drama of 1968:
• February: police killed three South Carolina State students protesting against segregation.
• March: the peaceful “Prague Spring” protest of Soviet domination in Czechoslovakia.
• April 4: Martin Luther King assassinated in Memphis, leading to riots across the US.
• May 6: students led a major protest in Paris, joined by workers for several days.
• May 22: Bermuda's first democratic General Election was held after decades of struggle.
• That spring, several college protests across the US, on war in Vietnam and racial justice.
• June 4: Robert Kennedy, a US presidential candidate, was assassinated.
• June 19: 50,000 gathered in Washington, DC, concluding MLK's Peace and Social Justice campaign.
• August: Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia to halt the “Prague Spring”.
• August: James Brown released his hit I'm Black and I'm Proud.
Notwithstanding all of this, connections were maintained and even some reinforced.
I was 18 in 1968, and worked in construction during the first eight months of that year, supplementing my student loan, for my university plans. I had been “black and proud” years before James Brown released that anthem. I knew this was essential, but not sufficient.
With mentorship from various sources I had developed a sense of independence. Bob Battersbee, a fisherman, encouraged North Village boys to take on challenges such as climbing rocky cliffs. My African Methodist Church supplemented family guidance, forging a healthy sense of self, never feeling like a victim.
Key to my growth was reading the autobiographies of Malcolm X and Dick Gregory in my mid-teens. This all fostered personal agency and a sense of social responsibility.
My curiosity about the emerging revolutionary movements in Africa and Latin America added perspective. I was able to view the drama of 1968, through a lens that provided the big picture.
Taking responsibility for my education, I recognised that it was much more than schooling.
While my father had not had the opportunity to attend secondary school and none of my immediate family had graduated from university, I set out pioneering that leg in September 1968. My family's financial challenges did not phase me, as I had worked a variety of jobs since the age of 12, which fostered independence. I had absorbed the positive energy of the spirit of '68.
I chose the University of Miami, because of its reputation in marine science which served my vision for a future Bermuda. It was this vision that moved me forward. While it was clear that there were forces against progress, I was convinced of the power of the “arc of the universe”.
While I understood the rioting on the island that spring, linked to the MLK assassination, I appreciated that it would harm the possibilities of the first democratic election on May 22. When the Progressive Labour Party lost, I shared that disappointment, but understood it as another step on the road.
While there were only 100-odd black students out of the 15,000 at Miami when I attended, I never felt personally disadvantaged. I was the only black student in the freshman biology programme at the time, but thrived. When Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the Olympics that October, I celebrated, even though my six apartment mates did not understand.
When Dick Gregory visited the university as a part of the student forum programme, I was “over the moon”.
This brings me back to that photo from Apollo 8 and reminded me that 2018 has seen moves towards “connectedness”. In the past couple of months, we have seen the successful campaign to engage the community on the way forward on energy.
While the first phase of the work of the Regulatory Authority of Bermuda saw only 20-odd submissions, through the leadership of Greenrock and BE Solar, almost 900 submissions were made on the second phase of the process.
This is a key victory for the environment and affordable energy, but also a victory for democracy. This only works when we all mindfully engage, aware of our connections to each other, and to the planet itself. This is essential as we face the challenges ahead, both in terms of climate change and the economy.
Let's continue responding urgently to the existential threat!