The Long Arc of Progress
One of former United States President Barack Obama’s guiding principles was this statement: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
That statement, first made by an American abolitionist in the 1800s, popularised by the Reverend Martin Luther King, and then taken as an article of faith by Obama, tells us that even when progress seems impossibly slow, we should have faith and hope that better times are coming.
It is sometimes wrongly criticised for being overly passive — you may think there is no need to do anything because change will come naturally, or that because progress is so slow, there is no point in trying to accelerate it. In fact, its deeper meaning is that even if the road seems impossibly long with no end in sight, you must keep moving forward — change will come.
Fifty years ago this week, 19,123 adult Bermudians, 91 per cent of registered voters, cast ballots in the first General Election held in Bermuda under universal adult suffrage — the principle of one person one vote, that right given without regard to gender, race or, for the first time in Bermuda’s history, property ownership.
It had taken 348 years to reach that point — almost 3½ centuries had elapsed between the first meeting of the House of Assembly and the 1968 election.
You can see the history of that evolution in the Chubb Gallery for the next two weeks at The Road to Democracy, a Heritage Month exhibition organised by the Bermuda National Trust with assistance from the Bermuda Archives, the Bermuda Historical Society, the National Museum of Bermuda and the Bermuda National Gallery.
As you follow the display around, you may notice that gradually it moves from a predominance of things — drawings of buildings, maps, medals, furniture and documents — to a predominance of people.
Some of the “things” are extraordinary. They include the 1834 Emancipation Act, which “utterly and forever” abolished slavery in Bermuda, Abraham Lincoln’s signature, artefacts from the women’s suffrage movement and more.
But the latter part of the exhibition consisting mainly of people reminds us that it was people who made the change that came about in 1968. People were elected to the House of Assembly who argued for a wider franchise. People joined the Progressive Group and launched the Theatre Boycott, which inspired more people to form the Committee for Universal Adult Suffrage in 1960 and 1961. Seven years later, the 1968 election took place.
For many people today, the world of pre-1968 Bermuda is, to steal the words of the song, a different world. Most of us have no conception of a government chosen by a few people to rule over many, or a world of legalised segregation.
For some of our older residents, people such as E.F. Gordon, Eustace Cann and W.L. Tucker remain living, breathing human beings — people they knew and worked with. The purpose of the exhibition and of historians is to make sure that they remain alive to us. We need to understand how we are connected to them, and them to us.
So this week we pay tribute to Dame Lois Browne Evans, to Sir Henry Tucker and to Sir Edward Richards, and to those young men and women elected for the first time in 1968, determined to make a new and better world. People such as John Barritt Sr, Eugene Cox, Quinton Edness, Austin Thomas, Roosevelt Brown, whose CUAS accelerated the change, John Stubbs, L. Frederick Wade, Gloria McPhee, Reginald Burrows and more.
And we also credit the few who are still with us today — Bill Cox, Stanley Lowe, Stanley Morton, Walter Roberts and C.V. “Jim” Woolridge — who were honoured in the House of Assembly this week.
To be sure, these people had their differences, political and otherwise. But in 1968 they recognised an essential truth: that Bermuda had to change.
There was confrontation and violence before, during and after 1968, but far less than there could have been. This largely peaceful revolution happened because far-sighted people were able to sit down and find ways to settle their differences. No one got everything they wanted at the 1966 Constitutional Conference, and today in Parliament not everyone gets everything they want, either. But they find a way to move forward. That is the essence of democratic government.
Before 1968, a small group of people made the decisions for all. Afterwards, everyone had a say. For that reason, it was a watershed year — the Bermuda we know today would not exist were it not for the events of 1968.
To be sure, the system is not perfect. But the miracle of 1968, and the lesson of 1968, is that Bermudians have the tools to change and improve on the system and they have done so. It may not always be easy, but it can be done and people can have hope that they can bring about the change they desire through peaceful and democratic means. That could not be said before 1968.
To understand why this matters, we need to go back another quarter-century.
In 1944, the issue dividing the island was over whether women of property should have the vote.
Dr Cann, whose mission is life was to end the property vote, feared, like other black politicians, that giving women property owners the vote would entrench that system, not weaken it, and he had previously opposed female suffrage.
But in 1944, Dr Cann had a change of heart when, after countless rejections, the legislation came up once more.
He said: “I shall vote for the measure today because I hate to see any group enslaved by the power of others and refused their legitimate rights.
“I call on all Assemblymen to consider these matters that would grant to others the same privileges now proposed for the Suffrage Society.”
Dr Cann argued that just as gender should not determine a basic right, nor should race, which was the effect of the property vote.
He was exercising hope; hope that the moral arc of history would bend towards justice and that his act of support would bend people towards his point of view.
It would take another 24 years, and Dr Cann would have gone to a better place when it did, but in 1968, 50 years ago this week, he saw his dream fulfilled.
• Bill Zuill is the executive director of the Bermuda National Trust. The Road to Democracy is at the Chubb Gallery until June 1. Opening hours are 10am to 4pm