Giant of Civil Rights Movement in Belfast
For 20 years the Washington-Ireland Programme has been bringing young people from Ireland to DC for internships which broaden their horizons and enhance their education.
This week, however, the traffic was in the other direction as the Programme founder Carol Wheeler led a ‘faith and politics’ delegation from the US to meet with change-makers and peace-builders here.
Among the group which travelled to Belfast were Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii — the only immigrant in the US Senate and a staunch advocate of immigration reform — and Congressman John Lewis, a famed civil rights veteran who has spent the past half-century testifying to the transformative power of love. (Senator Hirono is also the only Buddhist in the Senate and I had the privilege of introducing her to my Buddhist chaplain Ryushin Paul Haller who is in town from San Francisco to lead mindfulness retreats.)
During the civil rights struggle, Congressman Lewis campaigned ceaselessly against laws which confined African-Americans to ‘the back of the bus’. He was attacked and harassed on Freedom Rides across the Southern States, jailed over 40 times and beaten unconscious on the bridge at Selma, Alabma, in 1965. He was a chief organiser of the 1963 March on Washington at which his colleague Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
He has remained true to the gospel of non-violence action to achieve justice. “The movement created,” he says, “what I like to call a non-violent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you.”
His visit was timely — not only because it allowed the Congressman to have his picture taken beside a mural in his honour in Belfast — but because it comes at a time when Belfast has been shocked by a rash of racist attacks. There is no place in Belfast for the cancer of racism and no quarter will be given those who would have our newly-arrived immigrants or foreign nationals treated as less than full citizens of this great city.
Over recent weeks, I have met many of the families — most from Eastern Europe — who have been subject to ugly abuse and racist attacks and at a reception in my parlour on Friday for the Polish community of Belfast reiterated my belief that the bully-boys and thugs behind this campaign must be brought to book.
The Washington-Ireland Programme reminds us that Belfast youth striking out to follow their own dreams in the US are received with open arms. Let there be no doubt therefore that those who come here to better themselves and build our city, are part of our Belfast family.
Anything less would be a betrayal of the legacy of John Lewis and the black civil rights movement.