Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Irish and African-American Shared Struggle for Equality

They were not allowed to teach their children nor could they hold public office, vote or practice law. They couldn’t enter into mix marriages or own weapons. If you think I’m referring to the treatment of African-Americans in this country, you’re wrong. I’m referring to the Irish in their own country of Ireland.

During the Terror of Britain’s famed Oliver Cromwell and the Proclamation of 1625, there were over 300,000 Irish political prisoners sent overseas and sold as slaves to English settlers in the West Indies. Irish Catholics experienced the same struggles with slavery, discrimination, social class issues and negative stereotypes similar to that of African Slaves and African-Americans. The Irish saw themselves as slaves of the British; therefore, supported the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Where there is slavery and racism, there will be brave souls to stand up for freedom. Frederick Douglas was such a soul. During his five-week tour of Ireland, he met his Irish counterpart in the freedom fighter and nationalist Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell almost singlehandedly launched the Catholic Association and campaigned for Catholic Emancipation, which was finally achieved in 1829. O’Connell referred to Douglas as “The Black O’Connell.” When Douglas spoke, thousands of Irish men and women packed halls to hear his fiery antislavery speeches in Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Belfast where he expressed the shared parallels between the Irish and African-American slave experiences. Those who heard him were so moved they signed a petition declaring the following: “Treat the colored people as your equals, as brethen.”

During the Civil War, the Irish fought on both the Union and Confederate side with the largest majority joining the Union side of the war. Old St. Patrick’s second pastor, Rev. Dennis Dunne, formed the 90th volunteers who were an all Irish Brigade that fought on the Union side. It’s estimated that over 150,000 Irishmen fought on the Union side of that war. However, there reasons for fighting in the Civil War were quite varied. It’s noted that some fought to help free slaves while others fought to free themselves from the sometimes crude treatment that confronts some new immigrants when they make it to America.

As Irish immigrants in America, they were referred to as “White Niggers.” Storefront signs often read, “No Black, No Irish” and weird forms of Darwinism persisted claiming the Irish and Blacks were more like apes than Anglo-Saxons. The Irish were forced to take lower paying jobs and at times competed with free blacks for jobs as waiters and longshoremen as well as with African slaves. Oddly enough, some free blacks even joined in the constant Irish jokes about their laziness or stupidity. All of this competition and Irish joking created lots of tension between the two groups that manifested into riots and violence. While the Irish in Ireland seemed to sympathize with the plight of African slaves, and the former slaves sympathized with the Irish’s continued struggles in Ireland, it appears that Irish immigrants and African-Americans turned hostile towards each other in America at certain times in history. Even Daniel O’Connell scolded Irish immigrants for their racism, stating: “It was not in Ireland you learned this cruelty.”

Yet, there are still many parallels between Irish freedom fighters, African slaves and African-American freedom fighters struggling for equality. Even in political contexts the link between the Irish and African Liberation surfaced when Marcus Garvey named his headquarters the New York Liberty Hall, similar to James Connolly’s Liberty Hall in Dublin. Garvey even justified the inclusion of green along with black and red in the international African flag of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in order to symbolize the Irish struggle for freedom. Garvey continued to support the Irish fight for freedom, and always pointed out Africa’s similar fight for freedom.

Irish and African-Americans have either stood with each other or influenced one another throughout history. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. struggled throughout the 50’s and 60’s to achieve equality for black Americans as well as poor people during the Civil Rights Movement, civil rights leaders in Northern Ireland were inspired and utilized his tactics and strategies for their own fight for equality.

Today, you still see the Irish standing up for African American causes as well as causes for other races and populations including their own continued struggles in Northern Ireland. Sadly, the biggest issues in the black community today aren’t racism (although that still exists) but black-on-black violence. Who is standing up against violence in the black community? You guessed it, an Irish Catholic priest named Fr. Michael L. Pfleger. With a congregation that is 100% black, Fr. Pfleger joins with African-Americans in speaking out on violence in the black community through Voices Against Violence and other initiatives. His church has also tackled the over saturation of drugs in the black community as well as the blight and constant liquor billboards everywhere. Fr. Pfleger continually leads numerous peace walks through violent neighborhoods and has been recognized for his compassionate stand against injustice.

During the 2008 presidential campaign the most famous Irish family from Boston, the Kennedy’s, supported President Barack Obama’s run for the presidency over Hillary Clinton. There support as well as the incredible Iowa win (and Oprah Winfrey’s support) put Obama over the top and brought about a historical moment my family never thought we’d see in our lifetime – an African-American president. Large percentages of Irish Catholics supported Obama’s presidency, and I was proud to see those alliances surface during such a historic time in the history of American politics.

The Irish and African Americans share a unique experience of fighting for freedom and peace throughout history. Sure, this history hasn’t always been pretty. In fact, at times it has been incredibly tense and violent. Yet, the ideals this country was founded on: “all men are created equal” is an ideal that has captured the hearts of many people around the world. We are all aware of the hypocrisy of our Founding Fathers owning slaves as they wrote those words. Yet and still we hold true to its sentiment and different groups throughout history have turned those words into their own reality.

As we approach St. Patrick’s Day (St. Patrick, by the way, was a Celtic slave), we should celebrate with our Irish brothers and sisters and continue to remember the similar struggles we share. A grab for power, money, class and control can happen to any race and fuel tensions that generations of people must fight. Northern Ireland continues to struggle for their freedom, just as African-Americans continue to struggle for equality in this country regardless of subtle or overt forms of racism – while also struggling with the legacy of slavery through the inner demons in our own minds. Obama’s presidency proves that regardless of racism, if you work hard and continue to educate yourself you can achieve great things in life. Therefore, if we work together with all races, we’ll create a place on Earth one day where all of us are free. A world where we are free to love who we want to love, practice the religion of our choice, and be who we feel we are. If we do these things, then one day we’ll truly win against those who’d like to divide us by focusing more on skin color, religion and social status rather than character, kindness and heart. 

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