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Irish welcome for civil rights leader who 'fought the scars and stains of racism all his life'

John Lewis, an iconic figure from the US civil rights movement, was in Dublin yesterday to talk about his struggle, the lessons he learned and how it can apply to Northern Ireland.

The Tánaiste and Congressman John Lewis admire a statue of Frederick Douglass at Iveagh House last night
The Tánaiste and Congressman John Lewis admire a statue of Frederick Douglass at Iveagh House last night
Image: Niall Carson/PA

THE MAN WHO did the warm-up for Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech has said that 50 years on the American civil rights movement “is still transforming lives”.

Georgia congressman John Lewis gave the inaugural Frederick Douglass/Daniel O’Connell address in Dublin last night. The speech was part of an initiative recognising the relationship between the famous Irish liberator and the US abolitionist leader who once visited Ireland.

Speaking at Iveagh House in Dublin, the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Lewis drew comparisons between Douglass and O’Connell saying that both had struggled and suffered “for the liberation of all humankind”.

The now veteran congressman was a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech.

Opening the event, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore described Lewis as an “iconic figure” saying he “belongs in the pantheon of great leaders in the American Civil Rights Movement”.

“He has fought the scars and stains of racism all his life. He holds an honoured place in the great progressive tradition in American history,” he said.

In his address, Lewis recalled the events at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the famous ‘Bloody Sunday’ conflict in March 1965 when armed officers from Alabama State Police attacked hundreds of civil rights demonstrators attempting to march to Montgomery.

This key event, in which Lewis participated and was attacked, shocked America and would eventually contribute to the introduction of the Civil Rights Act.

Lewis said: “It took years of non-violent protests, years of standing in unmovable lines, and the final push on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, but change did come. Peace does work.”

Congressman Lewis and the Tánaiste admire a stature of Frederick Douglass at the Department of Foreign Affairs last night. 

He described how growing up in rural Alabama he was told “that’s the way it is” by his parents when he encountered and questioned examples of segregation.

Lewis said that Daniel O’Connell convinced Frederick Douglass that non-violence “was the most excellent way to meet their common enemy”.

He added: “The longer I live I have come to believe that non-violence is one of those immutable principles that should never be violated. It is the natural companion of the highest values of love, peace, and compassion.”

Gilmore said that the civil rights movement in the North had modelled its strategy on that that which had been established by the US movement.

“Many of the issues were the same: employment discrimination; housing; the grievance of being second class citizens that had built up over many years,” he said.

In unscripted remarks, Gilmore said that Ireland is “still embarked on a journey to overcome division and to achieve reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust and the protection of education of the human rights of all”.

He said that President Michael D Higgins’s State visit was an important milestone on that journey.

During a question and answer session, Lewis was asked about US immigration reform and said that while he anticipated it happening eventually there needed to be courage among US politicians to bring reform legislation to the floor of the House of Representatives.

“It’s gonna happen, it must happen,” he said.

The event was partly organised by the Faith and Politics Institute which organises pilgrimages for politicians in the US to help “foster relationships across racial, party and religious lines”.

Its president Liz McCluskey said she hoped the delegation from the US could learn lessons from people in Ireland and the North about peace and reconciliation.

“If it can be done in Northern Ireland, through shared power, maybe we can have inspiration for decreasing the polarisation in Washington,” she said.

In Dublin today: The man who warmed up the crowd for Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech

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Hugh O'Connell

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