From Birmingham to Belfast: Stories of Civil Rights

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From Birmingham to Belfast: Stories of Civil Rights
by Allison LIRA for Shared Future News
7 February 2019

Corrymeela, in partnership with the 50th Anniversary of Civil Rights Commemoration Committee, held a panel discussion at Queens University Belfast on the US civil rights movement and its connections to civil rights activism in Northern Ireland. The panel included the US civil rights veterans Dr Rip Patton and Dr Sybil Hampton, Professor Paul Arthur, and Eileen Weir. It was chaired by BBC’s Seamus McKee.

Dr Sybil Hampton was part of the second group of African-American students to integrate Little Rock High School in 1959, after the passage of Brown vs Board of Education, which ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional in the United States. Hampton spoke of the hardships she faced as a pioneer of school integration. In the three years that she attended Little Rock High School, only two people spoke to her. “To truly not be acknowledged was chilling,” she said. Despite enduring such a “diminishing” experience, with the support of her community, she was able to make it through. She knew, even at such a young age, that she was playing an important role in ensuring that her generation would be the first generation to realise the promises of democracy that for so long had been denied to her people. Professor Paul Arthur remembered attending Queens University during the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland and claimed that they too at one moment believed themselves to be the first generation that would enjoy the full rights and protections of democracy.

Dr Rip Patton participated in the Freedom Rides of 1961 aimed at integrating the buses, taking a Greyhound bus from Tennessee where he was a student at Tennessee State University. He and his fellow freedom riders were stopped in Jackson, Mississippi and arrested. They were sent to Parchman State Prison Farm and Dr Patton was subsequently expelled from school. Patton spoke of preparing for the rides by learning about the teachings of Gandhi and receiving training on how to peacefully deal with aggression from others. He also spoke of the terrible violence that threatened their peaceful protests, noting that the Freedom Rides were almost abandoned altogether after the first attempt ended with the Ku Klux Klan burning a bus that held Freedom Riders.

Professor Arthur reflected on the similarities and difference between the civil rights movement in the US and the movement in Northern Ireland, observing that the major point of departure between the two was that the movement in Northern Ireland devolved into violence. Although the Northern Ireland civil rights movement had similar intentions to the movement in the United States, Arthur suggested that, unlike in the United States, Northern Ireland’s political culture was not able to sustain a non-violent movement. It was a culture that “never did turn the other cheek”.

In further interrogating the reasons for the way civil rights activism in Northern Ireland turned out, Eileen Weir and Professor Arthur noted the role that Unionist leaders played in creating the perception that the civil rights movement belonged to Republicans. Arthur, formerly a part of the Young Socialist Club at Queens, noted that amongst the Unionist community, there were significant sympathies for the leftists’ ideals of the civil rights movement but that the fear of losing on the question of sovereignty kept widespread support from developing in the Unionist community.

In discussing the threat that Brexit posed to the future stability of Northern Ireland, Arthur urged that Northern Ireland keep in mind all those who were lost during the conflict in moving forward into the future. Eileen Weir, of the Shankill Women’s Center, emphasised how far there is to go in securing civil and human rights in Northern Ireland, especially for women, those with disabilities, and migrants.

In finding a way towards moving towards greater peace and prosperity, both Dr Hampton and Dr Patton expressed their strong belief that the youth in Northern Ireland had the potential to realise this ideal. They both advocated strongly for the integration of schools and for teaching youth about the history of Northern Ireland. On this point Patton said, “The only way to come together is to let young people know their history and let them make the change.”

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