[Northern Ireland to US ’15 Preview] Chanelle Hardy: 50 years later, an injustice anywhere is still, well, everywhere
Reflecting on my trip to Northern Ireland last summer, I realized the Northern Irish, too, had a reason to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Looking me directly in the eye, my guide on a Black Cab Tour in Belfast, spoke to us about how the Civil Rights movement inspired a similar movement in his country.
And to think I wasn’t sure if this trip would be relevant to my work.
During that tour in Belfast, our guide, a Catholic “Nationalist” gentleman, narrated a tale of oppression and injustice very similar to that of the Civil Rights movement. He described in great detail the peaceful protests, freedom fighters, violence, and hunger strikes that overtook the country. He spoke of the murders of women and children, gesturing to black-and-white photos emblazoned in parks, memorial gardens and on bulletin boards along neighborhood walkways. Our delegation looked upon murals decrying racism and political imprisonment featuring familiar faces like Muhammad Ali and Maya Angelou.
Regardless of political affiliation, age, gender or geography, every political leader we met identified the same challenges challenges America had for the pursuit of civil rights to Northern Ireland’s progress:
• Parades, thousands a year, which put particular religious/social/political allegiances on display, sometimes provoked violence;
• Emblems, namely whether the “Union Jack” or the Republic of Ireland flag flies, or both or neither;
• The past, as in how to maintain a lasting peace in the aftermath of the “troubles,” when most Northern Irish lost a loved one to violence.
I grappled with the many ways the Northern Irish sought to maintain and build upon the peace forged in the Good Friday Agreement, signed less than 20 years ago. I couldn’t help but grieve for the ongoing challenges the African-American community faces in our own relatively young “peace,” struggling to maintain its definition in the age of Mike Brown, Ferguson, Stop-and-Frisk, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride and the tragedy of mass Incarceration.
My organization, the National Urban League, with the aid of civil rights and social justice groups, still fights for voting rights access, job security, and to end police brutality.
White Americans suffer from “race fatigue,” a phenomenon described in the writings of W.E.B. DuBois. People of color are not immune. We are haunted by our past, just as our Northern Irish sisters and brothers are. I’d love nothing more than to celebrate the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act by pronouncing racism dead, and gone. I’d love to proclaim that equality has been achieved and America has, as Reverend King put it, “lived up to the true meaning of its creed,” but instead, more than 50 years after the March on Washington, progress in educational reform, home-ownership and the plight of the impoverished are still at the forefront of our everyday lives.
In Northern Ireland, political leaders were political prisoners, neighbors fought neighbors, protesters marched for the right to parade in opposition communities, and “peace walls” still separate Catholics from Protestants and Nationalists from Unionists.
How can two nations still struggling with the pain of the recent past successfully move forward?
In America and in Northern Ireland, regardless of where one stands in terms of race, creed or religion, we each desire basic human things: a home, a job, a good education for our children, a doctor when we’re sick, and safety. The bottom line is, in order to achieve true equality and guarantee these basic human dignities in both countries, we must come together to make progress.
Chanelle Hardy is the chief policy officer at the National Urban League, editor-in-chief of the annual “State of Black America” report, and is a participant of The OpEd Project.