Marching through Derry to the sound of 'We Shall Overcome'


It's 40 years since police broke up the Civil Rights protest in Derry. Martin Cowleyrecalls his part in an event that flashed around the world

BLACK AND white news film of Derry in the 1960s coats the city in a sickly pallor.

But it was exhilarating time for a teenager gripped by twin bugs of politics and news.

Political tension on the doorstep, turmoil in international capitals, East-West confrontation, impending epochal change worldwide. That was 1968.

Anybody worth their salt was radical then. Derry Labour Party chanted "Tories Out North and South" and demanded nationalisation of banks.

The Establishment gave them the brush-off with a sniffy smile. No one's laughing now, comrade.

October 5th, 1968 heralded the bloody baptism of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement, which took its inspiration from the struggles of black America. The movement's guiding principle was non-violence and its leaders stuck to it.

Many other forces and influences quickly bore down on the sorry state of Northern Ireland, however, and that peaceful and dignified demand for equality was overtaken by a nightmare of strife that lasted 35 years.

When I heard last week that Claude Wilton had died, I rummaged among the detritus of a reporter's past - such as dog-eared notebooks, Stormont press gallery tickets, a rubber bullet and Christmas cards from 10 Downing Street.

I unearthed a 1966 diary that confirmed a vivid recollection of Claude in those early days of street politics. Claude was a good soul.

Highly principled and respected by all, he was a solicitor of Protestant stock.

He instinctively practised civil rights long before the term was coined, and long before legal aid. He loved Derry well and helped all who sought his aid, especially the men and women of no property.

The diary also confirmed - though unrecognised then - what could even have been a minor scoop for a budding reporter; a report of what must have been one the North's first public airings of the Civil Rights anthem, We Shall Overcome.

The year 1968 was marked by international turmoil. Student riots in Paris, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Soviet Union's humiliation of Dubcek and its crushing of the Prague Spring, and much more.

On October 5th the world saw the ugly face of Northern Ireland, and Britain had to open its eyes to excesses on its western reaches. The course of this island's history, and British-Irish relations, was changed forever.

"Gentlemen, please," pleaded a protester facing a phalanx of Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers as they blocked civil rights marchers who were calling for wholesale reform of voting and housing allocation procedures, and an end job discrimination.

Batons flailed as the police broke up the demonstration after some early scuffling. The police had the marchers hemmed in on both sides. Protesters tried to dodge blows to the body and head deliberately aimed or doled out gratuitously to anyone within reach.

News cameraman Gay O'Brien of RTÉ shot the famous footage that flashed around the world.

I happened to be in his line of sight, and was filmed being sent sprawling by a burly policeman wielding a blackthorn stick after I had taken other baton blows to the head.

I had deliberately walked on the pavement and was among the crowd on the footpath as the police charged.

I was a young reporter with the Derry Journaland had not been assigned to cover the march, but I certainly wasn't going to miss it.

The marchers' grievances were shared by Catholic nationalists and liberal Protestants: demands for an end to a system that gave business-owners extra votes in council elections and demands for houses for hundreds of families crowded into crumbling, unsanitary flats.

Some time before October 5th, my editor sent me to speak to an old woman who lived alone in a tiny run-down house that had an outside lavatory with cracked bowl.

A Protestant, she lived in a unionist enclave. Her plight was sad. Working-class Protestants also endured rotten housing, too silently, perhaps, for the greater cause of unionist unity.

Unionist Party apparatchiks had ward boundaries sewn up so that they controlled the corporation, despite the nationalist voting majority.

The ruling forces turned their backs on the homeless and helped to perpetuate job discrimination.

Derry was out on a limb. Vital shipping and rail links had been axed.

A second city was earmarked - "Craigavon".

The galvanising factor that uniquely united Derry's citizens was a decision to locate the North's second university in Coleraine.

This host of issues drove Claude Wilton into politics, in two unsuccessful attempts to win seats from incumbent unionists.

My friends and I joined the campaigning for him and in 1966 I took note of the craic in the small green diary.

It was then that I heard the civil rights anthem sung on the streets of Derry for the first time.

May 14th, 1966: Went down with Seamus Coyle to Claude Wilton's HQ. Delivered election addresses for two hours. I delivered to Sir Basil and Lady McFarland (local unionist grandees).

May 18th: Went to Claude's final rally with (my cousin) John Healy. Johnny Hume and Ivan Cooper spoke. While John Hume was speaking . . . (unionist) supporters and bands passed by. Claude, etc, sang We Shall Overcome.

May 19th: Was out knocking up people all day. McLaughlin's (more cousins) was . . . area HQ.

The next page reads: "Claude was beaten by 443 votes. After result, all supporters sang We Shall Overcomewalking down the Strand Road." Stirring times.

• Martin Cowley was a reporter on The Irish Timesfrom 1971 until 1989. He was the newspaper's London editor in 1978-81. Later he joined Reuters as Ireland correspondent