Freedom on the Tyne – stories

Five historic and dramatic civil rights stories from across the globe will join together to create a theatrical performance on Sunday 29th October 2017. Each of these incredible moments in time will be brought to life by our cast of actors, musicians and dancers, alongside a cast of hundreds of participants from community groups across Newcastle and Gateshead. These five stories will culminate in a memorable and thought-provoking climax.

Selma, Alabama, USA
Sunday 7 March 1965

In 1965, Dr Martin Luther King Jr made Selma, Alabama, the focus of a black voter registration campaign.

A group of 600 protesters set out from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery on Sunday 7 March but were met with violent resistance and brutal force by state troopers blocking the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Media coverage across the globe drew civil rights and religious leaders of all faiths to Selma in protest and as the world watched, the protesters – under the protection of federalised National Guard troops – finally achieved their goal with the support of a 50,000-strong crowd.

The historic march, and Dr King’s participation in it, raised awareness of the difficulty faced by black voters in the South. The Voting Right Acts, which aimed to overcome the barriers preventing African Americans from exercising their right to vote, were signed into law on 6 August 1965.

Sharpeville, South Africa
Sunday 21 March 1960

In the black township of Sharpeville, Johannesburg, on Sunday 21 March 1960 more than 5,000 black Africans gathered at Sharpeville police station offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their passbooks – a peaceful protest against the apartheid pass laws, which required all black men and women to carry reference books containing their personal details including name, tax code and employer details.

The police open fired and 69 people lost their lives that day and a further 180 were injured. The following week saw demonstrations and riots across South Africa and the Government declared a state of emergency making any protest illegal. International support for the Apartheid regime drained away and the eyes of the world’s media were focused on South Africa as three decades of resistance and protest followed. This lasted until the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, who symbolically signed the nation’s first post-apartheid constitution in Sharpeville.

Manchester, UK
Sunday 16 August 1819

In 1819 less than 2% of the population had the vote and the country was in the depths of economic depression. Rising food costs and chronic unemployment, combined with the fight to secure votes for working people, led to the formation of the Manchester Patriotic Union, a group calling for parliamentary reform.

On Sunday 16 August, a crowd of more than 60,000 men, women and children, dressed in their Sunday best, gathered in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester to hear anti-poverty and pro-democracy speeches.

Under pressure from the Home Secretary in London, Manchester’s magistrates sent in the army to arrest the event’s speakers. The cavalry, fresh from the triumph of Waterloo, cut its way into the crowd attacking anybody that got in their way. It is thought up to 18 died with hundreds seriously injured.

The social justice movement and the fight for equality and freedom received a huge boost – the reformist Manchester Guardian was formed in the wake of the outrage and the event was given the popular title Peterloo in mockery of the cavalry’s tarnished glories. An unstoppable process of parliamentary reform begun which ended finally in the Suffragette movement and universal suffrage.

Amritsar, India
Sunday 13 April 1919

On Sunday 13 April 1919, tens of thousands of people headed to Amritsar, India’s holy city of the Sikh religion, to attend its Sikh Baisakhi festival. Despite many people being unaware the city was under martial law, with a ban on meetings and gatherings, General Dyer’s troops surrounded the park and without warning opened fire on the crowd killing almost 400 people and injuring more than a thousand.

The outrage was widely condemned and faith in British rule fatally undermined. Mohandas Gandhi led the strengthened campaign for independence. General Dyer was at first exonerated by the British House of Lords although he was later fully censured by the House of Commons.

Jarrow March, UK
Monday 5 October 1936

The 1930s saw Britain in the middle of a world-wide depression with areas in the North East suffering the worst. After the closure of Palmer’s shipyard in 1934, four out of five people in Jarrow were out of work. In October 1936, with the support of Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, 200 men set out from Jarrow on a march to London to petition the government to bring jobs back to the town.

Marching to the tune of its mouth organ band, the marchers successfully reached London with a petition signed by 11,000 Jarrow locals. A further 67,000 people signed a second petition on route. Ellen Wilkinson presented their petition in the House of Commons on 4 November.

Protectionist policies implemented by the government did go on to improve the British economy and in 1938, a ship-breaking yard and engineering works were established in Jarrow.