US civil rights leader praises O’Connell legacy
Congressman John Lewis delivers keynote address at Iveagh House
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore welcomes US congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis to Iveagh House in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
A celebrated leader of the American civil rights movement of the 1960s told a Dublin audience last night that non-violence is one of those immutable principles that should never be violated.
Congressman John Lewis was one of the leading figures in the movement and was at the forefront of occurrences and watersheds that helped usher in an end to segregation, and the deliberate and brutal discrimination against African-Americans in the US.
Mr Lewis delivered the keynote speech in the inaugural Frederick Douglass/Daniel O’Connell Address in Iveagh House in Dublin, the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
He was welcomed and introduced by Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, who described him as an “iconic figure who belongs in the pantheon of great leaders in the American civil rights movement”.
The speech was organised by the project of the same name which wishes to sustain the legacy of Douglass, a free slave who championed the abolition of slavery and visited England and Ireland, as well as O’Connell, the driving force behind Catholic emancipation.
Mr Lewis, who is now a congressman representing Georgia, said that O’Connell and Douglass had met once and that O’Connell had been an early advocate against the trafficking of slaves. For his part, Douglass had seen the suffering of Irish people who were left out and left behind. From that, said Mr Lewis, he discovered an “immutable bond” that joined him to all the human suffering everywhere. “It was also Daniel O’Connell who convinced Douglass that non-violence was the most excellent way to meet their common enemy. The longer I live the more 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.”
He said Mohandas Gandhi, born in 1869, had impacted the life and thinking of Martin Luther King jnr, the great civil rights leader. “The work of King changed my life, and that is why I am standing here today.”
Mr Lewis said what happened to protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” 1965 at the hands of Alabama state troopers was so violent and so shocked America and the world that it ushered in a democratic process. “It took years of non-violent protests, years of standing in immovable lines . . . But change did come. Peace does work. Not only does it change laws but it changes hearts and minds.”
Mr Gilmore in his introductory speech said Mr Lewis had “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 Mr Lewis had always campaigned on behalf of poor and oppressed people, marginalised people, victims of racial hatred and grinding poverty. “John Lewis has stood for justice,” he said.
Mr Gilmore said the civil rights movement of the 1960s, in which Mr Lewis had played a major part, should not be seen through any romantic or soft lens. He instanced “Jim Crow laws”, brutal segregation, deep discrimination in employment, rigged elections and Kafkaesque laws. He reminded the audience that Mr Lewis was jailed for his stand against segregation.