Throughout American history walking has punctuated major social change events. There was the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom, the precursor of the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Two years later, in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King led Civil Rights Marchers on a 54-mile walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, for the right to vote.
Across the Atlantic in Northern Ireland, people who shared similar grievances with their government took notice of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Groups began forming with names like Campaign for Social Justice, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, the Derry Housing Action Committee, the People’s Democracy, and The Derry Citizens Action Committee, among others. Protest strategies, slogans, and songs popularized in the American south were adopted and similar calls for social justice rang out across Northern Ireland.
This year will mark the 50th Anniversary of the 1969 People’s Democracy March from Belfast to Derry, in Ulster, Northern Ireland.
As the recipient of the Amherst Irish Association’s 2018 Margaret Maher Award, I plan to commemorate this historic Civil Rights March in April, by traveling to Northern Ireland and retracing the steps of the original Belfast to Derry marchers. My goal is to link the Civil Rights stories of Selma and Derry, while examining the progress each city has made toward Human Rights and freedom for all residents.
To accomplish this goal I hope to raise $4,000.00 to cover camping equipment, hiking gear, and other expenses during the two weeks I plan to walk and meet with groups in Northern Ireland, April 9-20, 2019.
The walk will start in Belfast on April 10, the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, and include stops in Antrim, Randalstown, Hillhead, Toome, Gulladuff, Brackagh, Glen Shane, Dungiven, Feeney, Claudy, Burntollett Bridge, Altnagelvin, Irish Street, Spencer Road, Crossing of Foyle River, and conclude at the Guildhall.
The People’s Democracy
The People’s Democracy was formed by a young group of liberal minded, socialist, students from the Queen’s University of Belfast in the fall of 1968. Like many of the African American students seeking change in the Southern U.S. Civil Rights movement, the Queens University of Belfast students also felt a call for action “in the fierce urgency of now” despite critics who cautioned against the march.
The People’s Democracy March was a 114-kilometer/70-mile march from Belfast to Derry, modeled on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Right to Vote March. It was one of the early galvanizing Civil Rights events that underscored the political “Troubles” of Northern Ireland when peaceful protesters nearing Claudy, County Derry, were attacked by loyalist mobs and an off-duty “B-Specials” police force with rocks, wooden cudgels, iron bars, and bottles, as they approached the Burntollet Bridge, some seven miles outside of Londonderry.
Today with the winds of history at our backs we know the Queens University students and their supporters persisted in reaching Derry on the fourth day of the march, and the non-violent Civil Rights movement would ultimately lose out to the more militant voices calling for an armed struggle that would not end ‘the Troubles’ until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, some 30 years later before self-government was restored to Northern Ireland.
With King’s idea of the Beloved Community in mind, I hope to symbolically connect this Northern Ireland peace walk with my Walk to Freedom journey that culminated on March 30, 2018, following a 400-mile walk from Selma to Memphis, Tennessee, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. (The equivalent of walking from Londonderry to Limerick City, Co. Limerick and back again).
Selma and Derry, also known as Londonderry, share similar histories as settings of infamous Bloody Sunday incidents of violent, reactionary, repression by government agents to peaceful demonstrations. While Civil Rights was the common theme sought by protestors during the time, the evils of hatred, bigotry, prejudice, and oppression stifled daily life for the poor, segregated, residents of these cities.
Today, Belfast and Derry are buttressed by the greater economy of the European Union and the Euro, while Selma remains a stagnant, poor, Black Belt community with limited foundations of economic assistance.
During my walk I look forward to meeting with community groups, churches, and others actively working on peace initiatives that bring Northern Ireland closer together.
I am eager to meet and listen to some of the “seanduine” still living who participated in the struggle for freedom in Northern Ireland. I learned during my recent walk across the Deep South that the current generation of youth has only a vague, fragmented, memory of past struggles for freedom. It’s my hope that by visiting Ireland, I can serve as a cultural ambassador sharing current pictures and stories describing what it’s like to walk two historic trails of freedom – the People’s Democracy trail from Belfast to Derry and the Selma to Montgomery historic national trail – linked by similar stories of social justice.
Additionally, I also look forward to discovering the different regions of the country to absorb its myths, legends, and stories of its magnificent culture.