AS BARACK Obama visits Ireland for the first time as president, I am reminded of a simple gesture of kindness that altered the course of American history.
In October 1960, Dr Martin Luther King jnr was roused from bed in the middle of the night on trivial charges stemming from his protests against racial segregation. King was denied bail and sentenced to four months of hard labour in a Georgia prison camp, which many feared he might not survive, either by lynching or by a convenient “accident”. This was not, on the turbulent surface of the times, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s problem. The Massachusetts senator was locked in a close race for the White House. If he had any chance to win, he needed to keep the support of white Southern Democrats – Southern Democrats who, for the most part, hated everything that Martin Luther King stood for.
Yet JFK, without a flicker of cynicism, picked up the phone and called King’s pregnant wife, Coretta, offering her comfort and his help. When Kennedy’s campaign managers found out, they were livid and figured it a thoughtless act that could well cost the election.
But empathy is a powerful energy in the art of politics. It is a signpost of deep character. And it is this depth of character that has been displayed for a couple of centuries by generations of African Americans and Irish Americans – two people, deeply and properly linked.
On that day, in 1960, Kennedy linked with King. The signal was clear: the civil rights movement would have a powerful ally with Kennedy in the White House. And the African American community responded by providing the votes needed to elect the first Irish Catholic president. The course of history changed. Black merged green and green merged black.
Irish-Americans and African-Americans dropped their hyphens . . . and once again became one.
Civil rights was not an impossible dream. Thousands of brave African Americans stepped forward to make it happen. And with their Irish American public servant in the White House, they changed the course of the United States.
Over the centuries, both cultures have known deep abiding pain and cruelty – a racial suffering played out at the hands of governments and, indeed, fellow countrymen. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” said Dr King, “but it bends towards justice.” He and countless others, believed in the dignity of the individual, and the possibilities of hope. The most fearless hearts, the audacious dreamers, have always maintained a sense of optimism that often flies in the face of the available evidence.
During the American Revolution of the 1770s, “green” and “black” fought alongside each other for a fledgling, imperfect nation. When the citizens of Baltimore banded together to repel the British during the War of 1812, three in five were immigrants, and one in five was black – some were free, some slaves. The defence of Baltimore inspired Francis Scott Key to write what would come to be called, The Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem, a gallant streaming of unity over the ramparts of race.
Yet Baltimore was still a place that slaves such as Frederick Douglass had to flee to gain their freedom. When Douglass published his autobiography, fugitive slave laws made it unsafe for him to stay in America. He travelled to Ireland by ship, confined to steerage class below-deck, as part of a two-year lecture tour around Britain and Ireland. He found, in his words, “a total absence of all manifestations of prejudice against me, on account of my colour”. He wrote home, “I seem to have undergone a transformation, I live a new life.” From Daniel O’Connell, the Great Liberator, Douglass would see first-hand the power of nonviolent resistance in Catholic Emancipation – a lesson that helped shape generations of American civil rights activists.
The hardships that Douglass witnessed at the start of the Great Famine served as a preview of the Irish and African American experience. There were occasions when the cultures clashed (as in the 1863 draft riots in New York City), but it was a clash of people who could recognise each other’s desires. Together, they worked the most dangerous and back-breaking jobs. Together, they built from muscle, music and dream the land that would become a reflection of themselves.
Both cultures made the cities, built their homes, lived in close quarters, stretched every cent they could save. They became Americans and still managed to honour where they came from. When duty and patriotism called, they gave their heroics to a country not always kind to them.
The links are myriad: music, poetry, language, exile, loss, humour, beauty, even the trenchant practice of politics.
In an Oval Office address, Kennedy called the cause of civil rights “a moral issue, as old as the scriptures, and as clear as the constitution”. To those who would keep the codes of the past and argue that segregation was tolerable, he asked who would volunteer to have his skin colour changed and be discriminated against. And it was 50 years ago this month that Kennedy’s younger brother, Robert, publicly predicted an African American could be elected president within the next 40 years. He cited the election of an Irish Catholic president to prove the point that bigotry could be overcome.
It may seem quaint now, but it was audacious then.
Two months later, a baby boy named Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. His mother told him he could be president one day.
She was right.”