The African-American And Irish Civil Rights Movements

From NBC News, an article by Chandra Thomas Whitfield examining the influence of the African-American civil rights movement on its Irish counterpart in the UK administrated north-east of Ireland during the 1960s and early ’70s:

“It was a Sunday afternoon in January. Hundreds gathered to protest what they considered rampant injustices in the criminal justice system. Linked arm-and-arm, many marched through the streets belting out, We shall overcome.

By most accounts it was a peaceful demonstration, but the tone changed dramatically just after 4 p.m. Soldiers, decked out in riot gear, pelted the crowd with gunfire and tear gas. Chaos erupted. Ten minutes later, 13 people were dead, according to the BBC; including several teenagers.

Ultimately, troops shot 26 unarmed civilians during the protest march against internment – imprisonment without trial; a 14th died from his injuries months later. Witnesses say many of the victims were marchers and bystanders wounded by soldiers while fleeing the gunfire; some shot in cold blood as they tended to the wounded.

This may sound like a typical scene from most anywhere in the Southern United States during the mid 1950s to late 1960s – familiar footage from say, Eyes On The Prize, the famed documentary series on the civil rights movement; or maybe even moments from Black Lives Matter demonstrations of current day.

Only these protestors were in Northern Ireland, in the Bogside area of Derry to be exact, the shooters were British forces and the year was 1972 – four years after American civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated outside a Memphis motel.

Many scholars of history say those campaigners, and others like them, had long aligned themselves with the ideological framework of nonviolent direct action modeled by King, whose official federal holiday is observed nationwide today.”

Which is a fair enough outline of events around the Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1972. Unfortunately it is followed by this pop-culture comparison:

“…Maurice Hobson, an historian and African American Studies professor at Georgia State University. “The fight in Northern Ireland was like that TV show Game of Thrones; the United Kingdom is made up of several kingdoms and many in Northern Ireland wanted their own separate nation apart from the UK. Their movement was about, some Irish identifying as nationalists and wanting their own nation-state.””

Nooooooooo… The British occupied north of Ireland was not like “…the Game of Thrones” nor is the United Kingdom made up of “…several kingdoms“. Good god almighty, how many times are people going to explain contemporary or past issues by referencing the television adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s literary fantasy series? Especially when the references rarely work? There are actual historical events that could, y’know, be used instead. Or are people so utterly lacking in education that they can only contextualise issues in terms of a fleetingly popular TV show? And not even a good contextualisation! No one but the bug-eyed fringe of the “Ulster separatists”, the believers in the Lost Tribes of Israel and the Middle-earth dialect of “Ulstèr-Scotch”, actually wanted Britain’s rump colony on the island of Ireland to become a nation-state in its own right. Irish nationalists were campaigning, fighting, for an end to government-sanctioned discrimination against their communities and identity, the British occupation itself, partition, and for the reunification of the country as a whole. Contrary to some opinions, the Irish Republican Army was not the Night’s Watch!

Vótáil Sinn Féin!

 

 

 

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8 comments

  1. “This may sound like a typical scene from most anywhere in the Southern United States during the mid-1950s to late 1960s …”

    This also fails as a comparison. I know of no US Civil Rights march that ended with blacks being gunned down by police on the level of “Bloody Sunday.” There was the Orangeburg (SC) Massacre in 1968, in which South Carolina Highway Patrol officers responded to black students protesting a segregated bowling alley, in which three black students were killed and 28 others wounded. That event happened at night, where there was confusion about whether the officers had been fired upon by students. There also was the shooting death of a black protestor in an Alabama café in 1965; the march over the Edmond Pettus Bridge in March 1965 in Selma, Ala., that resulted in dozens of blacks being beaten by state and county law enforcement; and the death of a former civil rights organizer killed by stray gunshots from police who fired into the crowd during student protests in 1967 at Jackson, Miss. There was plenty of violence during the Civil Rights era, but to say what happened in Northern Ireland in January 1972 was a regular occurrence in the Southern US during the mid-1950s to late 1960s is journalistic hyperbole.

    1. I thought that myself, CBC, but wasn’t entirely sure. As you indicated individual acts of murder in the US during the civil rights era resulted in fatalities that could be counted in the ones, two or threes, rather than in multiples of that. And they were usually perpetrated by private, extremist forces rather than by the forces of the state or government. There were no massacres by soldiers, national guardsmen or police as such though of course killings and acts of wounding were being carried out by individuals and groups across the period. I have no idea of the number of fatalities relating to civil rights activities, demonstrations or reactions, though it would be interesting to see if anyone tried to tabulate them.

        1. I’m actually surprised that the recognised number is so low. Forty-one fatalities over fourteen years. Pop-culture would lead you to believe that it would be in the dozens though I suppose there must have been a handful of additional killings relating to the civil rights controversies that were never acknowledged as such. In the north-east of Ireland 250 civilians died in 1972 alone, plus 230 combatant deaths, and over 2000 wounded or injured. This in a region smaller than the state of Indiana and with a population of 1.5 million at the time.

          1. The Southern Poverty Law Center has made a cottage industry out of the tragedies of the Civil Rights era. They’re not likely to have overlooked too many deaths, if any at all. But the bigger issue is the point you made: that pop culture has portrayed the South of the 1950s and ’60s as a place where minorities were killed on an regular basis. There was certainly intimidation on a regular basis, and the period from the end of the Civil War until around 1970 was not a particularly wonderful one in terms of opportunity if you weren’t white, but it also wasn’t a place where the state gunned down blacks to keep them in line. As you also noted, north-east Ireland suffered far more deaths in a single year in a much smaller area than the entire South did over more than a decade.

  2. I’ve always been very interested in this connection. March is going to be Irish History Month on my blog (and probably April, too, because of the Easter Rising) so I’ll post on this then.

    I just wonder why the civil rights movement in Ireland devolved into the Troubles, while the American one stayed nonviolent. It was not outside the realm of possibility for the South to become a battleground the way Northern Ireland was.

  3. This is typical for ‘Meirca. When actual facts do not reflect one’s conjecture, then they just make it up. When it is really serious, they’ll make a movie that forever settles the matter. The British print a nice book with plenty of nice illustrations. They were a class act and no one in the “free world” killed more civilians and intimidated and oppressed more people without any of the scrutiny or outrage that accompanied the American Civil Rights struggle. To top it off, they did so right in wonderful Europe bustling with empathy for human rights and welfare everywhere in the world – except for Ireland, where all blame was laid squarely on one side only – the side of those oppressed and disadvantaged. A practice virtually unchanged to this day. It would have been like laying the blame on Dr, Martin Luther King for the civil unrest on a world-wide level. The American Civil Rights movement gained national and international support, and has had continued support and successes, including an “African American” President. Far from perfect, but continued progress. The oppressed Irish had no such support, any real successes, or recognition. Not even any official expression of sympathy despite hundreds of years of abject oppressive rule and genocide predating the “split state.” This created the fertile ground for the violence that marked the conflict.

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