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Op-EdU.S. civil rights failures offer lessons to Ireland

February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Tom Hayden

At the beginning of the Troubles, the marchers in Derry sang “We Shall Overcome,” inspired by the civil rights movement in America’s Deep South. Now with an Easter peace proposal promising equality for Northern Nationalists, it is worth making comparisons again between the Irish North and the American South.

Before the U.S. civil rights movement, the Southern states represented a system of racial supremacy dating from the 17th century. The system was protected by police power and sealed by the pervasive paramilitary organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and secret societies like the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.

In the beginning, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King were excoriated by established liberals for going too far too soon. Militants like Stokey Carmich’l were shunned as radical terrorists. Activists were targeted by officially sanctioned counter-intelligence programs.

Ultimately, however, the movement broke the back of legalized segregation because it mobilized broad support for its equality agenda and because the United States could not lead the Free World while segregating its black population. President Lyndon Johnson, a moderate Southerner, even declared “we shall overcome” as voting rights legislation was passed.

There was jubilation when those walls came tumbling down. Today, the old climate of terror is gone from the South. African Americans are represented at the highest levels of government. Southern liberals Bill Clinton and Al Gore, beneficiaries of the civil rights movement, control the White House.

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And yet the dream of equality seems far away to this generation of African Americans in the Southern states and Northern ghettos. After all the euphoria, the civil rights movement stalled on basic questions of race and class. The end of legalized racism did not erase institutional racism. Education and housing areas are as segregated as ever. The promise of economic development was achieved only for a small black elite. In Mississippi, where African Americans are more than 40 percent of the population, a majority suffers below the poverty line.

Is the American South the future of the Irish North? As Ireland enters a new era, the American civil rights experience is rich with lessons worth examining.

There are, of course, basic differences between the Irish North and the American South. The most obvious are, first, that the North remains under British sovereignty, while the American South was pressured to conform to American national ideals, and, second, the agreement seeks a peaceful alternative to a continued state of war, while civil rights legislation and the “War on Poverty” sought to end a more random kind of violence that threatened a society at peace.

The factors of foreign dominance and armed paramilitaries are major differences, but the similarities are poignant between the long centuries of American slavery and British colonialism, the last century of slow and tortured steps toward equality and freedom, and the present gap between official ideals and entrenched realities.

The key parallels are these:

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