US civil rights leaders hope to build bridges and learn from Northern Ireland

Inaugural Frederick Douglass-Daniel O’Connell address at Iveagh House

John Lewis: he said he had been arrested about 40 times during civil rights campaigns and Montgomery police chief Kevin Murphy, in 2013, was the first police officer to apologise. Photograph: Douglas Graham/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

John Lewis: he said he had been arrested about 40 times during civil rights campaigns and Montgomery police chief Kevin Murphy, in 2013, was the first police officer to apologise. Photograph: Douglas Graham/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

Wed, Apr 23, 2014, 01:01


When US congressman John Lewis, the civil rights leader who walked beside Martin Luther King jnr on many of the marches for social change in 1960s America, visited Montgomery, Alabama, a year ago, local police chief Kevin Murphy apologised and handed him his police shield in a gesture of respect.

Murphy expressed regret for failing to protect Lewis and his fellow civil rights activists when they were beaten by a mob at a bus station in Montgomery in 1961. Lewis said he had been arrested about 40 times during civil rights campaigns and Murphy was the first police officer to apologise.

The Freedom Riders, led by Lewis, travelled on interstate buses in the south in a campaign seeking to have a US supreme court ruling enforced that would end segregation five years after African-American seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger in Montgomery.

“For a police chief to give their shield to someone is one of the most ultimate signs of respect. It is a great recognition of sacrifice. I felt Congressman Lewis epitomised that sacrifice,” said Murphy, ahead of his arrival in Ireland today on a five-day trip with Lewis and Maryland governor Martin O’Malley.

The US congressional delegation will be on a trip organised by the Washington DC-based Faith and Politics Institute, which has taken more than 200 members of Congress on civil rights pilgrimages in the US and South Africa.

The trip comes a fortnight after President Barack Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act with a keynote speech at the Lyndon Baines Johnson presidential library in Texas, saluting the man responsible for enacting that legislation.

Today, Lewis will deliver the inaugural Frederick Douglass-Daniel O’Connell address at Iveagh House in Dublin, where he will pay tribute to the relationship between the Irish Catholic Liberator and the US abolitionist leader.

The highlight of the visit will be the delegation’s walk across the Peace Bridge over the river Foyle in Derry with Nobel laureate John Hume tomorrow.

Lewis is familiar with bridges in places of conflict. He led 500 peaceful marchers on the 965 civil rights procession from Selma to Montgomery when state troopers attacked them with clubs and tear gas after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

The incident became known as America’s Bloody Sunday, an act of aggression similar to the one that occurred on the Bogside in Derry in January 1972.

“The two histories have a lot in common,” said Murphy who has met Police Service of Northern Ireland officers on visits to Montgomery. “We are not going to Northern Ireland to judge. I don’t want anyone to feel that we are passing judgment on them in that we have any predisposed feelings about their culture.”

When he became police chief in 2010, Murphy introduced a class for police officers, Policing in an Historic City: Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs, in which officers analyse the errors of the past and visit the city’s Rosa Parks Museum to learn about the civil rights movement. “The closing part of the class is a values segment where we give participants an opportunity to role play so they can decide, what would you do, and what decisions would you make,” he said.

The great-great grandson of Timothy Murphy from Co Carlow and a police officer for three decades is seeking to change the perception of a divided south set during those tumultuous times in the 1960s.

“We have made some strides here in the south. In particular in Montgomery, there has been some reconciliation and some progress,” he said. “We are not completely where we want to be but I think we can learn from the people in Northern Ireland. I think we can learn from each other.”