In the civil rights arena, America gets a lot of the press and always has. Many of the worst atrocities and biggest conflicts in the movement happened in the United States, and they continue to happen to this day. Hollywood has made plenty of movies chronicling the American fight for civil rights, including one about the fateful march from Selma in 1965 that raised awareness and inspired equality all over the world, especially in the north of Ireland where another civil rights movement was being born.
It’s no secret that Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panthers, and other civil rights leaders in America inspired the oppressed communities in the North and on this day in 1968, the first civil rights march in the region began. It was not the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery but the march from Coalisland to Dungannon was just as fraught with danger and opposition. Organizers stressed the importance of cross-community participation and anti-sectarian values, but the largely Catholic participants knew before they took their first step that they were potentially headed for trouble. Despite the call for inclusion, the march was seen as a provocative Nationalist, Republican, and Catholic event and it was met by hard-line Unionists, Protestants, and Loyalist ‘Paisley-ites’ (Reverend Ian Paisley’s followers) just outside of Dungannon.
The authorities stopped the marchers on the outskirts of town where the two groups faced off to exchange jeers, insults, and the occasional fist or stone. Most of the marchers sat in the middle of the road singing songs, listening to speeches, and turning the confrontation into a kind of street party and many of the speakers reiterated that the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was not about violence or sectarianism. They asked the crowds to disperse peacefully. The majority of the crowd did just that, though there were some who confronted the police and provoked the counter protestors on their way out. There were a few arrests and a few injuries but the march is largely remembered today as the peaceful beginning to a very violent, very ‘troubled’ conflict that rocked the region for the next forty years or so.
That conflict did not fully solve the problems of inequality and civil rights issues are still alive and well in the North of Ireland, much like they are in America and other parts of the world. You’d think after so many years of bloodshed, injustice, tears, and catastrophy that both countries would be well beyond the same old issues by now, but you’d be wrong. One can only hope that eventually enough ordinary people will reject the bigotry, hatred, and sectarianism they grew up surrounded by, thus rendering the power dynamics and inherent bigotry of the past to history where it belongs. Until then, repeat after me for as long as it takes to get it to stick – Civil Rights Are Human Rights.
All Power to All People.