The Civil Rights Movement and the Lessons for Today

Labour Party Conference, 29th November 2008, Michael Farrell

I very much welcome the decision of the Labour Party to mark the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland and I am honoured to be asked to speak about it tonight and to try to draw some lessons for the present day,

And, of course, we will also be commemorating on 10th December the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that brave attempt to create a new world order based on respect for the dignity of women and men throughout the world.
You could say that the Civil Rights movement in the North did not begin in 1968 or even in Northern Ireland, but in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, when a black woman called Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. That simple action started the Civil Rights movement in the US and brought to prominence a young Baptist Minister called Martin Luther King.

My generation in Northern Ireland grew up with newsreel pictures of Civil Rights protestors in the US being beaten off the streets by racist police and were inspired by Rev. King’s “I have a dream” speech in 1963, when he set out his vision of an inclusive and multi-racial society even at that time of bitter division in the US.

Northern Ireland in those days was a deeply divided and unjust society with widespread discrimination in housing and jobs by the old Stormont government and local councils. In the early 1960s hundreds of homeless families were living in abandoned US Army huts in Derry and others were squatting in condemned pre-fabricated bungalows in Dungannon because the local councils refused to give them houses. When they began to picket the councils demanding housing, they carried placards comparing their situation to that of the black protestors in the United States.

It was a striking development that a white working class community 5000 miles from Alabama or Mississippi should identify so readily with their black sisters and brothers in the US and maybe it carries a lesson for our society today.

And then there was 1968, that extraordinary year of protest. It was marked by massive demonstrations against the US war in Vietnam – another lesson for today? – by the Prague Spring, when the old Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia collapsed and was replaced by a reformist government that gave hope of a new “socialism with a human face”. Students and workers rose up in Paris in May 1968 and nearly overthrew the government.