On Saturday 10th November a group of trade unionists, human rights campaigners and musicians of the We Shall Overcome Committee will host a seminar and concert in Liberty Hall to mark the 50th anniversary of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement.
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The choice of location emphasises the role of trade unions and those campaigning for social justice in the history of that struggle and in similar challenges faced today.
The seminar, with speakers including solicitor and human rights campaigner Michael Farrell, Advocate for the Homeless Fr Peter McVerry, ICTU President Sheila Nunan, and community and political activist Bernadette McAliskey, will link the lessons of 50 years ago to current struggles in housing, workers’ rights, discrimination and racism.
The concert will give musical expression to the fight for social justice with singers and musicians including Tommy Sands and Niamh Parsons.
In 1945, while the members of CIO Food & Tobacco Workers Union Local 15 were on strike in Charleston, South Carolina, a woman called Lucille Simmons came down to the picket line to sing for them.
The song she chose was an old African-American spiritual called I’ll Overcome Some Day.
She changed the song title to We Will Overcome reflecting the solidarity of struggle.
When the strike was over the song was picked up by another woman, social activist and folk song collector, Zilphia Horton, who, in turn, passed it on to Pete Seeger. By the time he performed it at his famous 1963 Carnegie Hall concert, both the name and tempo had changed to become the iconic We Shall Overcome.
It became the soundtrack to the civil rights movement in the U.S. and echoed across the Atlantic to Britain’s backyard where people also demanded their civil rights in the late 1960s.
After decades of discrimination by the then-Unionist government against nationalists, particularly in housing, employment and local government, the struggle for civil rights burst on to the streets and towns of the North in the autumn of 1968.
Actions protesting discrimination in housing were followed by a civil rights march in Derry on 5th October that year. The march was batoned off the streets by the Royal Ulster Constabulary before the eyes of the world. It was a seminal moment in modern Irish and world history.
What followed was a dam burst of the pent-up grievances of a whole community.
Marches and pickets were organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), involving many from the trade union movement as well as republicans, and by the militant student body, People’s Democracy.
The Unionist government at Stormont eventually and reluctantly responded with proposals which were too little and too late.
When another march, organised by People’s Democracy, was ambushed at Burntollet Bridge 10 miles from Derry in early January 1969, the long full-time whistle began to blow for a regime which was described decades later by Unionist leader David Trimble as “a cold house for Catholics”.
He might have included, for good measure, the left, workers, trade unionists, liberals and anyone unwilling to bow to the sectarian state of Northern Ireland.