Fifty years ago the Civil Rights movement in the Six Counties began with a march from Coalisland to Dungannon, which is being re-enacted today by Sinn Fein. Brian Dooley describes how the original marchers drew inspiration from the campaign for civil rights in the United States.
Fifty years ago this week, several thousand marchers set off from Coalisland on the first civil rights march in the north of Ireland.
The world remembers the Derry march of 5 October 1968, when the RUC batoned the protestors off the streets, because it ended in violence and - more importantly - was televised, but the Coalisland to Dungannon march came first, and was much bigger than the Derry protest.
The march marked a tactical departure for the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), which had been content until the summer of 1968 with trying to pursue anti-discrimination cases in the courts, issuing leaflets and writing letters to the press drawing attention to gerrymandering and unfair housing allocation. In June 1968, Austin Currie had brought media attention to housing discrimination by squatting in a house in Caledon.
Republicans and others in NICRA pressed for more direct action, and advocated taking to the streets in American-style civil rights marches. Drawing on a long tradition of solidarity with the black American struggle which stretched back to the 1840s, a march was planned for the last Saturday in August 1968.
Television pictures of demonstrations in Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and elsewhere inspired civil rights activists in the north of Ireland, and political links between black American and Irish activists spanned several generations.
Daniel O’Connell had been a leading and public opponent of American slavery, and in 1845, former black slave Frederick Douglass toured Ireland. He gave a series of lectures in Belfast, and appeared at a political rally at Dublin’s Liberty Hall with O’Connell to raise support for the anti-slavery movement.
In the 1920s, the political grandfather of black nationalism, Marcus Garvey, studied the structure and modus operandi of Sinn Fein, and modeled his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) on the same lines. At the huge UNIA rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden in August 1920, Garvey telegrammed Eamon de Valera in the name of 25,000 black delegates to formally recognise him as president of the Irish Republic.
That same year Garvey sent a telegram to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George asking that Republican hunger striker Terence MacSwiney not be allowed to die, and sent another to MacSwiney’s priest which said “Convey to MacSwiney sympathy of 400,000,000 Negroes”.
MacSwiney’s death after 74 days on hunger strike touched a deep chord in Garvey, who repeatedly expressed admiration for the prisoner’s sacrifice. “I believe the death of MacSwiney did more for the freedom of Ireland today than probably anything they did for 600 years prior to his death”, he said, and compared him with Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi.
Fifty years later, Republicans were again linking their struggle to the black civil rights movement in America, and were key in organising the march to Dungannon.
Although Republicans provided the flatbed lorry from which the speakers were to address the crowd, and supplied the stewards, march organizers were keen to present the march as a civil rights, as opposed to a Nationalist, demonstration. In fact, a NICRA official prevented Roy Johnston, the IRA’s Director of Information, from delivering a message of support at the start of the march.
When the procession reached the outskirts of Dungannon they found the road ahead blocked by a police cordon, behind which stood several dozen counter-demonstrators, led by Ian Paisley. A request to reroute the protest and the presence of the police threw the civil rights marchers into some confusion, and a heated debate raged between those who wanted to take on the police, and those who insisted that the march remain non-violent.
The march eventually passed off peacefully, and the marchers dispersed singing “We Shall Overcome” with some voices mingling in “A Nation Once Again”.
Links between Irish and black American activists intensified in the following few years, with Eilis McDermott of People’s Democracy going to Black Panther Offices in New York, where she was made an “honorary panther”, and Bernadette Devlin McAliskey forging political ties with the Panther leadership and even visiting prominent black radical Angela Davis in jail in California in 1971.
Davis was awaiting trial for murder and kidnapping, had been on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, and been publicly identified as “a terrorist” by President Richard Nixon. Davis was acquitted of all charges, is now a university professor and has remained a key ally in the Irish struggle.
She visited Belfast to take part in a women’s rights movement conference in 1994, and remembered: “I thought immediately about the situation in apartheid South Africa because I had visited South Africa and what struck me most was the military presence ... I’ve known about the occupation for very many years, but it was quite another thing to come face to face with it and to be searched everywhere ... in the aftermath of that visit I made a point to include in all of my talks some comments on the situation there.” Davis joined former New York Mayor David Dinkins and other black leaders in the campaign for the release of Roisin McAliskey.
It was not just the radical wing of the black civil rights movement that has supported Irish activists. In 1972, two weeks after the Bloody Sunday massacre, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by Martin Luther King, sent a delegation of top officials to a NICRA conference in Belfast. Bernard Lee, Juanita Abernathy and Juanita Williams addressed the meeting and took part in protest marches about the killings.
Several black Members of Congress have also taken a keen interest in the Irish situation, including Donald Payne, the first African-American to be elected to Congress from New Jersey. He visited the six counties in 1995 and in 1997 introduced a bill in the House of Representatives calling for a ban on the use of plastic bullets by the RUC.
Although the civil rights march of August 1968 went largely unnoticed by the international media, it marked the start of a new phase of direct resistance to unjust laws, a willingness to confront authority in the streets, and renewed co-operation in the long tradition of solidarity between the black American and Irish struggles.
* Brian Dooley is author of Black and Green, The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America, published by Pluto Press.