50 years after the civil rights movements in the North and the US, Dr Stewart Smyth reviews the one off RTÉ special ‘1968: The Long March’ and analyses the particular narrative of the civil rights marches that s presented.
The RTE documentary drawing parallels between the US Civil Rights marches and the events in NI and Derry in 1968 has received a somewhat underwhelming reception. The Irish Independent described it as a “largely tepid hour” and the Irish Times highlighted the film’s uncontroversial nature and the now well-established link between the two movements.
A large part of the problem with the film is the dominance of one voice, the presenter Miriam O’Callaghan; this is certainly not a polyvocal “history from below” documentary. While participants in both the Selma (in the US) and the NI civil rights marches are present, they play a secondary role to that of O’Callaghan and her own personal journey: “For me, the story of the Northern Irish civil rights movement begins three years before 1968 and 4,000 miles away”.
This format was clearly an editorial decision which enabled a preferred narrative to be advanced – protesting may be acceptable in certain circumstances but it can also lead to years of violence.
A Break-down in Trust?
One of these circumstances, according to O’Callaghan, is when “trust” has broken down between a section of society and those in-charge. Trust is a somewhat strange concept to deploy in both the context of nationalists in NI and black people in the southern US. In both cases, it is very hard to substantiate the idea that either Nationalist or Black communities had trust in the Orange State or the segregated societies of the US South to begin with.
This raises the question that if a breakdown in trust does not explain the civil rights movements in the US and NI, why did O’Callaghan use the concept? To answer this it is important to remember O’Callaghan’s social (and professional) position as the chief current affairs presenter for the Irish national broadcaster. While it is appears that O’Callaghan herself is sympathetic to the ideals of the civil rights movements, such an important topic would have included discussions about an editorial line at higher levels in RTE.
Protecting Today’s Status Quo
RTE as the national broadcaster in the Republic of Ireland has a responsibility to ensure that programming generally supports the continued existence of the 26-county state. Hence, when O’Callaghan talks of trust she is not addressing the circumstances of NI nor the southern states of the US in 1968, but those who are inspired by the events half century ago and may want to replicate them today.
For example, you can occupy a house in Dublin’s inner city to protest over today’s housing crisis (as Austin Currie and others did in Caledon, Tyrone in 1968), but you must trust that Minister Eoghan Murphy is going to solve the crisis; or you run the risk of descending into chaos.
Despite the dominance of O’Callaghan’s voice there are bursts of energy that cut through the torpor; these in the main are supplied by Bernadette McAliskey and Eamonn McCann, along with Brid Ruddy’s account of events at Burntollet Bridge in January 1969. On several occasions during the film the police force – the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) – and the NI government were labelled as being particularly stupid; “the stupidest regime in Europe”, to quote McCann.
Powerful Stupidity and Structural Bigotry
This stupidity resides not (only) at the level of the individual such as the Unionist politicians William Craig or Terence O’Neill; it was a collective stupidity that went to the core of the institutions of the NI state, and emanated from the blind bigotry that was built into the Orange State.
Here a parallel with the events in Memphis in 1968 is illuminating. Martin Luther King was in Memphis in March and then again fatefully in April 1968 to support the striking sanitation workers, as part of his Poor People’s Campaign. Thirteen hundred black workers had been on strike since early February in a fight to gain union recognition and safe working practices (two workers had been crushed to death on 1st February by a malfunctioning garbage truck).
The local city administration, run by an old-style segregationist, Mayor Loeb, refused any help or mediation attempts from the Tennessee Senate, the trade union AFL-CIO President or US President Johnson. Instead, Loeb and his acolytes in the Memphis Police Department set about a campaign of intimidation and violence that included the killing of a 16-year old boy, Larry Payne, and the deployment of the army (National Guard) on the streets of Memphis.
The assassination of Dr King forced President Johnson to send his Undersecretary for Labor to settle the strike. Yet, in an act that at face-value looks like gross stupidity, Mayor Loeb refused to sign the final agreement. Despite this the strike settlement was ratified by both the municipal authorities and the workers union.
The actions of Mayor Loeb illustrate the racism that black people faced and in many ways still continue to face. It is not just about personal traits or ideas; the racism in Memphis was built into the structures of that society (“plantation capitalism”, as it has been described) and outlasted the formal securing of civil rights with the ending of the segregationist Jim Crow laws.
So the stupidity of the reactions by those in power, in both NI and Memphis, is borne out of a deep bigotry that is integral to the social, political and economic structures in both places. Understanding this goes a long way to explaining why issues of discrimination and oppression continue today in NI and the US for nationalist and black people.
Ultimately, these criticisms (and others) mean that ‘1968: The Long March’ is a missed opportunity to explore the underlying processes that gave rise to the civil rights movement in NI and the US, rather than just the parallels between the two. This could have addressed questions such as why the NI civil rights movement was unable to attract significant support from the Unionist working class; what role did organised labour play in both the NI and US civil rights movements, and what was the potential significance of Martin Luther King’s launch of the Poor People’s Campaign?
However, in keeping with the arguments above maybe that was the point of the film; for RTE to show they had covered the events of fifty years ago but not highlighting the potential for radical social change that the movements gave a glimpse of, all too briefly.