Report by Diarmuid Breatnach
Two very interesting talks were given last night as part of a series of history talks at the Sean O’Casey Community Centre in East Wall, Dublin. The theme was black civil rights in the USA and Catholic civil rights in the Six Counties of Ireland (‘Northern Ireland’ according to some).
Joe Mooney of the East Wall History Society introduced the speakers and chaired the question-and-answer session afterwards.
The session opened at 8pm and Cecilia Hartsell had a lot of ground to cover. She spoke on the history of the Civil Rights movement of blacks in the USA, going through the history of seminal events, illustrated with Powerpoint slides and recordings of two White House phone calls between President JF Kennedy and Ross Barnett, Governor of Mississippi and key figure trying to prevent the historic enrollment of James Meredith, a black man, into the University of Mississippi.
Recalling that in the first two years of his term, JF Kennedy had little to say about black civil rights but was focusing on other issues,Cecilia Hartsell somewhat undermined the (incorrect) image we tend to have in Ireland of Kennedy as an ardent civil rights fighter. In fact he was enforcing Federal legislation on equality and trying to go slowly, while the black campaigners were pushing the agenda along and white racist reaction was holding the USA up to international ridicule and opprobrium during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
When Brian Hanley took the floor for his talk he fairly zipped along, which he does very well. Hanley undermined some myths or wrong impressions too. Early organisers of the civil rights marches and other events such as the Dungannon house occupation were Irish Republicans; Loyalists had killed four people before the first Civil Rights march. The rhetoric of SDLP and Labour Party notables was much more militant in the early years and Fine Gael was agitating more about issues of discrimination in the Six Counties than was Fianna Fáil, the party in government. And FF had been pushing a referendum to do away with the proportional representation electoral system at the same time that the PR system was among the demands of civil rights campaigners in the Six Counties.
In the session for questions, answers and contributions later, Hanley pointed out that the Southern Democratic Party was the pro-slavery party historically and, after the Civil War, anti-integration and civil rights, whereas the Republican Party was anti-slavery (debunking another false image we tend to have in Ireland).
Both historians made the point that a hundred years is not as long as some might think (this is especially true in ‘historical memory’). The 1940s, when some historians would say, as Hartsell told us, is the date from which to date the renewed fight for black equality in the USA, as surviving black soldiers returned from WWII, was only 80 years from when Federal troops were withdrawn from the former Confederate states. The partitioning of Ireland had been carried out less than 50 years before the Civil Rights protests broke out in the Six Counties, Hanley reminded his audience and many Catholics still lived who remembered vividly the fierce repression that had accompanied it.
It also emerged that albeit there were many similarities, there were also profound differences between the two movements. The black campaigners in the USA were saying that they were citizens of the USA State and demanding the same rights as other citizens, they often marched with the Stars and Stripes flag and even called for the intervention of US troops to defend their rights. The Catholics marching for civil rights in the Six Counties mostly saw themselves as Irish citizens and would never march with the Union Jack. Some did call for the intervention of British troops but many did not; it was mostly Irish troops they hoped would intervene.
The importance of the presence of news photographers at events and their covering in newspaper reports and on television broadcasts was an important factor in both struggles.
Cecilia Hartsell did not feel that the Black Power movement could have survived Southern racist repression in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s and most of the big gains on desegregation of education, public transport, eateries and voter registration and effective right to vote in the Southern States were won during those years with peaceful marches and pickets and legislation (which however were met by much racist violence, including a number of murders). By the time the Black Power movement was coming on to the political stage, so was the Vietnam War and huge changes were taking place in the US, including many mass violent struggles on race and other issues.
TERMINOLOGY AND DEEPER MEANING
Wikipedia: “Though often used in history books to refer to the seven states that originally formed the Confederacy, the term “Deep South” did not come into general usage until long after the Civil War ended. Up until that time, “Lower South” was the primary designation for those states. When “Deep South” first began to gain mainstream currency in print in the middle of the 20th century, it applied to the states and areas of Georgia, southern Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, north Louisiana, and East Texas, all historic areas of cotton plantations and slavery. This was the part of the South many considered the “most Southern”.”
“Later, the general definition expanded to include all of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and often taking in bordering areas of East Texas and North Florida. In its broadest application today, the Deep South is considered to be “an area roughly coextensive with the old cotton belt from eastern North Carolina through South Carolina west into East Texas, with extensions north and south along the Mississippi”.
“Lower South” probably originally referred to its location on the typical north-orientated map of the USA. But I speculate that “Deep” has another meaning – a deeper psychological one, in fact. It suggests that this is a place difficult to understand for people not from there, which means most people. Different rules apply there, we might believe.
I speculate further that after the initial first years of the Civil Rights movement in the Six Counties, that area and the people living in it came to be seen as “different” too. Of course, it was different in that it was a colony (as had the whole country been only 50 years earlier) and that it was run along blatantly sectarian lines, the Catholics a minority there, unlike in the rest of Ireland. And of course, people in a different environment respond differently. But they were still people and the substantial Catholic minority were so clearly oppressed in a statelet into which the Irish ruling class had delivered them. For many people in the 26 Counties it became easier to think of them as somehow foreign in a foreign kind of land, hence my description as “Deep North”.
THE SPEAKERS (as posted by EWHG)
Cecelia Hartsell is a researcher of American history. She has been a contributor to the RTE History Show and Radio Kerry on topics in U.S. history and frequently gives U.S. history talks for the Dublin Festival of History and in the Dublin Public Libraries. Cecelia has a Masters degree in U.S. history from Fordham University and a Masters degree in History from UCD.
Brian Hanley is an historian and author. He is currently a Research Fellow at the School of Classics, History and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh . He has lectured at a number of major Irish universities and was Historian in Residence at Dublin City Library and Archives . His books include “A Documentary History of the IRA, 1916-2005” (Dublin, Gill and MacMillan, 2010) with his most recent being “The impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968-79: boiling volcano?” (Manchester University Press, 2018).
NEXT HISTORY TALK
There will be another talk in the series next week when Dr. Mary Muldowney will present a talk on “The 1918 Election – the Woman Who Stood for a Worker’s Republic.”