In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of a bus in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1957, the National Guard had to escort nine black schoolchildren past racist protestors in Little Rock, Arkansas. In March 1960, 60 black anti-apartheid protestors were shot dead in Sharpeville, South Africa.

In August 1963, 200,000 civil rights supporters gathered in Washington to hear Martin Luther King proclaim “I have a dream,” and Bob Dylan unveil “Only a pawn in their game,” highlighting the manipulation of the white poor by racist politicians. 

Increasingly alert to events in the wider world, Derry noted the US, South African and other struggles for justice. Some pondered the possibility of these as models for action to remedy local grievance.

And in the county Tyrone in the town of Dungannon in 1963, housing protestors gathered outside a council meeting carrying placards: “If Our Religion Is Against Us Ship Us To Little Rock.” The demonstration led to the formation of the Campaign for Social Justice, the north’s first civil rights organisation.

“We Shall Overcome” became the anthem of the civil rights movement in Ireland.

  • University for Derry campaign in Guildhall Square, 1965.

    O'Neill's "New Era"

    In 1963, the ‘liberal’ Terence O’Neill replaced traditionalist Lord Brookeborough as the north’s Unionist Prime Minister. De Valera’s successor, the pragmatic Sean Lemass, became the first Taoiseach to visit Stormont. The talk was of a new era and fairness for all.

  • DHAC protest outside the courthouse in Bishop Street

    DUAC and DHAC

    The 1967 BSR closure prompted the formation by local trade unionists of the Derry Unemployed Action Committee (DUAC). Pickets, rallies and protests were organised. The Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) followed.

     

  • Police arrest civil rights marcher in Duke Street, 5 October 1968

    Duke Street

    Alarmed by the rising spirit of political radicalism, Derry’s Catholic bishop, Dr. Neil Farren, warned young Catholics in an Easter 1968 pastoral letter, “not to be led by the mob.” 

  • A few hundred marched in October, ten thousand in November.

    Aftermath of Duke Street

    The police assault on the march splashed the truth of unionist rule onto television screens across the world.