Historical reflections on the Civil Rights Movement

By Michael Farrell
Paper to Desmond Greaves Summer School
30th August 2008

What I have to say will be only partly historical.  The Civil Rights Commemoration Committee, with which I am involved, has from the beginning stressed that while it wished to mark the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement in a dignified way, it also wanted to look forward and try to apply the lessons and ideals of the Civil Rights movement to contemporary problems and challenges.  So I will be trying to do that today.

This year also marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
and Eleanor Roosevelt, who took the lead in drafting the Declaration, famously said that
human rights begin “in small places close to home – so close and small that they cannot
be seen on any maps of the world”.

There were many strands that went to make up the Civil Rights Movement but one of
those strands began precisely in small places – though not so small that they could not be
seen on maps – places like Springtown Camp in Derry and Dungannon in County

Housing conditions were bad in Northern Ireland in the 1950s and into the 1960s, especially west of the Bann, and were aggravated by the political and sectarian set-up.
Only householders had the vote for local councils and many local authorities had been carefully gerrymandered to ensure Unionist control even in majority nationalist areas.  Houses meant votes, so as the Unionist leadership saw it, to allocate local authority houses to nationalists or Catholics could endanger their control of local councils.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, especially with the advent of television, attitudes were
changing.  Horizons were widened.  People were no longer prepared to accept things just
because that was the way they had always been. But the housing – and jobs – situation
was not getting any better or, at least, any fairer. In Derry City, where the electoral
boundaries had to be re-gerrymandered several times to maintain Unionist control, the
situation was so bad that when the US army vacated a temporary camp of Nissan huts at
the end of the Second World War, around 400 families moved in and squatted in what
were basically drafty, vermin-ridden sheds.

They were still there 14 years later and in1959 the women residents in the camp began a campaign for proper housing and protested and lobbied and interrupted the Corporation meetings. Five years later in 1964 they were protesting again and getting thrown out of Corporation meetings but the last surviving residents didn’t leave until 1967.  One of the last surviving activists from that time, Sadie Campbell, was honoured by the Commemoration Committee at a seminar in Dungannon in June last.

In Dungannon a Homeless Citizens League was set up in the early 1960s by mothers of young families forced to live with their parents in sub-standard housing. They were demanding proper accommodation and when the Council proposed to demolish an estate of 50 temporary post-war pre-fabricated houses, in 1963, homeless families moved in and defied threats of eviction and cutting off their electricity supply. Residents picketed the Council, got arrested, held marches and were eventually allowed to stay and in the end they were re-housed.

The Dungannon protests led to the establishment by local GP Dr. Conn McCluskey and
his wife Patricia, of the Campaign for Social Justice, a small lobbying group that began to
collect statistics about discrimination to disseminate to the Labour Party in Britain and
anyone else who would listen. The experience in Dungannon also led to squatting by
a couple of Catholic families in new Council houses in nearby Caledon in 1968, where
they were joined by the then Nationalist MP Austin Currie, and it was a result of that
protest that a group of local activists called the first Civil Rights march from Coalisland
to Dungannon on 24th August 1968.

Similarly in Derry, a new Housing Action Committee took up the baton from the
Springtown residents at the end of 1967 and picketed, protested and blocked roads in the
city throughout 1968 until they eventually called the second Civil Rights march on
October 5th 1968. It was the attack on that march by the RUC which brought the Civil
Rights movement to world attention.

Both the Coalisland and Derry groups had invited NICRA to sponsor the marches, which
were then backed by many other groups as well, but I wanted to stress here the degree to
which these marches sprang out of local grass-roots agitation around housing issues, and
frustration at the impossibility of securing change through the existing political system.*1

One of the placards carried at the first picket of Dungannon Council in September 1963
said, a little incongruously: “Racial discrimination in Alabama hits Dungannon.” And when the Springtown Camp residents staged a march in Derry’s Guildhall in January 1964, they described it as “Derry’s Little Rock calls for fair play”.

Little Rock was a city in Arkansas where US federal troops had to be deployed in 1957 to protect the first black students to be enrolled in the city’s Central High School. The city’s school board closed down all its high schools in 1958-9 rather than see them integrated, but by the end of 1959 they gave after a series of rulings by the federal courts.

The Little Rock story was widely covered in the old cinema news reels at the time and made a powerful impact as a symbol of the brutality and injustice of the system of segregation in the Southern states of the US.

But what was most striking about the placards and slogans in Derry and Dungannon was the identification by a white, largely working class, community with the struggle by black people thousands of miles away in the US, and at a time when most of their own relatives in Berlin or the Bronx would have had very little sympathy with the US movement.

Events in the US dominated the early 1960s. The March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech in 1963; the Civil Rights Act in 1964; the Selma-Montgomery March across Alabama in March 1965, which helped force the federal government to push through the Voting Rights Act later that year, and on which the Burntollet march was modelled.

The minority community in the North was angry and frustrated at the continued discrimination and at government decisions that seemed almost calculated to provoke it, like the decision to pump investment into the misconceived New City of Craigavon in the early 1960s, rather than develop Derry, and to locate a new university in Coleraine rather than Derry, which had an existing University College. Political opposition in the Council chambers and at Storming was a waste of time, however. What were they to do?

High hopes had been raised by the election of a Labour Government at Westminster in 1964 and its re-election with a substantial majority in 1966 but Westminster was showing no sign of wanting to intervene in Northern Ireland.

The tactics and strategy of the US movement, also faced with complete intransigence by local State administrations and reluctance to get involved by the federal government, looked more and more attractive. The use of non-violent marches, pickets, sit-ins and civil disobedience appeared to be working in the US.  These tactics had resulted in the federal authorities intervening and forcing through changes and they caught the imagination of a generation in the North, ranging from radical youth and students to solid but totally frustrated councillors and local activists in the towns and villages where discrimination had its sharpest effects.

The result was a total identification with the US movement, even adopting its name and anthem and it is a matter for some pride that the movement here did identify so strongly with the struggle against racism and segregation in the United States.

And then there was 1968 itself.  It was an extraordinary year.  In February the old Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia collapsed, leading to an explosion of discussion and debate on communism, socialism, feminism, democracy, and the possibility of a new society different from the uncaring capitalism of the West and the bureaucratic communism of the East – the possibility of ‘socialism with a human face’.

Three months later Paris and much of France erupted in mass student protests when everything was challenged and for a brief moment it looked as if students and young people really could change the world – until the rising was crushed by the French riot police.  But that did not end the movement for change.  There were massive protests across Europe, in Rome, Milan, Berlin and many other cities.

In the US, protests against the Vietnam war were at their peak, culminating in the huge demonstrations outside the Democratic Party convention in Chicago in August 1968, which were brutally beaten off the streets by Mayor Richard Daley’s police.

Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in the US in April and June of 1968 and in August Russian tanks crushed the liberal government in Prague – but amid scenes of such courage by young people on the streets that it served to encourage anger and determination rather than despair.

And the Vietnam war overshadowed everything.  This unequal struggle in which the US pounded Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with huge quantities of high explosive and dropped napalm and Agent Orange, which defoliated the countryside and poisoned the inhabitants.  Students, faced with the prospect of being drafted to Vietnam were protesting across the campuses of the US and awakening the sympathy of fellow students across the world, and even in Belfast.

That was another important strand in the Civil Rights movement.  When the RUC were shown on TV batoning demonstrators in Derry, just like the riot police in France or Mayor Daley’s police in Chicago, Queens University, hitherto one of the quietest campuses in these islands, was in turmoil and the Peoples Democracy was born.  It brought another element to the Civil Rights campaign, a little anarchic, but vivid, idealistic, dedicated and, for a time anyway, very non-sectarian.

All this and more went into the melting pot to create the Civil Rights movement.  What is its relevance to the issues of today in Ireland, North and South?

First and foremost, this island has changed very significantly in the last 40 years, and particularly in the last 10-15 years.  Up to 12% of the workforce in the Republic today were born outside the State.  The figure is lower in the North but it is still very significant and Dungannon and other towns in Mid-Ulster have whole new minority ethnic populations that have quite literally changed the complexion of those places.

The rapid population change has led to some racial tensions, particularly in parts of Belfast, but the real danger is in a time of recession such as we are now heading  into, where there will be a temptation to blame the immigrant community for job losses and cut-backs in public spending.

The Civil Rights movement was so inspired by the struggle against racism and segregation in the United States that it would be a betrayal of all it stood for to allow racism to take root in any part of the island.  That is perhaps the strongest message of all that we should take from the Civil Rights movement today – that we must not allow new oppressed minorities and new fault lines of discrimination to develop in place of the old ones.

And that goes as well for our own indigenous ethnic minority, the Travelling community.  It is something of a failure by the Civil Rights movement that 40 years after it began, and with all the changes that have been achieved, we still have failed to eliminate the deep seated prejudice against Travellers or to bring an end to the poverty and deprivation that they still experience.

I have tried to stress the degree to which the Civil Rights movement developed out of a grass roots struggle for housing and jobs in Northern Ireland.  And, indeed, there was also a significant movement here in Dublin in 1968 as well, campaigning against the appalling slum conditions still persisting in this city right into the 1960s.  Housing is still a major problem today, even though the parameters may have shifted somewhat.  There is still a need for far more social and affordable housing to be built and the problem of homelessness can only grow as the recession bites deeper.  The spirit and tradition of the Civil Rights movement should lead to support for the struggle for better housing today.

It is ironic and a sobering thought that just as the shadow of the Vietnam war hung over 1968, so the shadow of another unequal, unnecessary and unjust war hangs over our time, the shadow of the war in  Iraq, and indeed the nebulous but deadly “war on terror”, with its re-definition of torture to allow the US and its unsavoury allies to “waterboard”, i.e. partially drown, prisoners while questioning them, and its policy of extraordinary rendition and detention beyond the law at Guantanamo Bay.

It is depressing 40 years on to have to still oppose US wars of aggression, but it is still necessary to do so and in particular to oppose the complicity of the UK and especially the Irish government in facilitating flights by aircraft suspected of involvement in ‘rendition’ through Shannon airport without any checks or inspections whatsoever.  And having campaigned against the old special Powers Act in Northern Ireland, it is important as well to oppose the new extended detention powers being introduced in the UK and the general harassment of the Moslem community in the way that the Irish community in Britain was harassed in the 1970s and 1980s – which only tended to create more anger and resentment and more recruits for the IRA.

More generally, the Civil Rights movement should have taught everyone the lesson that if a society provides no avenue of redress for deeply felt grievances, then sooner or later, those grievances will fester and erupt.

A new settlement has been reached in Northern Ireland in the last ten years which has thankfully ended the armed conflict which was doing nothing except cause further loss of life and increased bitterness.   That settlement is predicated on respect for and inclusion of both the main political traditions there and it has been underpinned and reinforced by a very elaborate and comprehensive architecture of human rights and equality provisions.

Those human rights provisions are often overlooked in the media discussions about tensions in the Executive and when it is going to meet again etc., but they are crucial to the settlement and the future.  If the Executive remains paralysed by distrust – and the deep political differences and the legacy of suffering on all sides cannot evaporate overnight – then the framework of human rights protections is essential as offering a way of remedying unsolved grievances.

And even if the Executive functions fairly well, the nature of the power-sharing arrangement means that there is little or no opposition in the Assembly and very few to voice the concerns of awkward and vulnerable minorities that don’t fit into the major blocs.  Once again the human rights and equality mechanisms are vital to allow such voices to be heard and have an effect.

Finally, the Good Friday Agreement required the Irish Government to put in place human rights protections equivalent to those existing in the North and they rather tardily did so.  Now, however, the Irish government is floating proposals for rationalisation of the human rights and equality sector that would undermine the independence and effectiveness of the Irish Human Rights Commission, which is specifically provided for in the Agreement.

This would not only weaken the Commission in the Republic, but by tampering with an important and specific component of the Agreement, it would open the door to similar dismantling or disabling of awkward parts of the Agreement’s provisions in the North as well.  People interested in the ideals and legacy of the Civil Rights movement should be very vigilant to protect the new institutions that took much lobbying and hard work to get into the Agreement in the first place.

We cannot look back on the last 40 years without humility and sadness at the great suffering and loss of life inflicted on all sides of the community in Northern Ireland and many people in Britain and the Republic as well.  Today we have a second chance with a settlement that has its flaws but also has a set of human rights provisions that would have settled the grievances of the Civil Rights movement had it been available at the time.  There is an opportunity here to finally build the fairer society that the Civil Rights movement set out to achieve.  That opportunity should be grasped.  We are unlikely to get another one.

*1 Because other speakers at this session dealt specifically with the work of NICRA, I have concentrated here on the local agitation which preceded the marches in 1968.  This was not meant to take away from the role of NICRA but to demonstrate the multi-faceted nature of the Civil Rights movement at the time.

Michael Farrell is a former activist in the Peoples Democracy and member of the executive of the NI Civil Rights Association.  He is vice chair of the Civil Rights 1968 Commemoration Committee.

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