Freedom on the Tyne – stories

The following five historic and dramatic civil rights stories were told as part of a theatrical performance on Sunday 29th October 2017, with the stories completing in a thought-provoking climax on the Tyne Bridge.

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 on their third attempt 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
Monday 21 March 1960

On Monday 21 March 1960, in the black township of Sharpeville near Johannesburg, on Monday 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, address and employer details.

The police opened fire 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 and suspending civil liberties. 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 1996, who symbolically signed the nation’s first post-apartheid constitution in Sharpeville.

Manchester, UK
Monday 16 August 1819

In 1819 less than 2% of the population had the vote in the UK 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 Monday 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 speeches on parliamentary reform. Fearful for their safety, Manchester’s magistrates arranged for the army and a local cavalry militia to arrest the event’s speakers. The army, fresh from the triumph of Waterloo, cut its way into the crowd attacking anybody that got in their way. The local militia went with them, acting out personal vendettas on the working class. 15 died with more than 600 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 began which led to the Great Reform Act of 1832, allowing the new borough of Manchester to elect its first two MPs, and ended finally in universal suffrage.

Amritsar, India
Sunday 13 April 1919

In April 1919, twenty thousand people headed to Amritsar, India’s Sikh holy city, to attend the Sikh Baisakhi festival.

On Sunday 13 April, the morning of the festival the city was put under martial law, but this went largely unknown to pilgrims and residents. An unarmed crowd gathered in the public garden near the Golden Temple. Within an hour, troops led by General Dyer surrounded them and without warning opened fire. According to colonial estimates, they killed 400 people and according to the Indian National Congress, more than 1000.

The outrage was widely condemned and faith in British rule fatally undermined. Mohandas Gandhi led a strengthened campaign for independence and General Dyer was relieved if his command (although received £26,000 in donations form a sympathetic British public).

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 bitterly. After the closure of Palmer’s shipyard in 1934, unemployment in Jarrow was up to 70%. 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. Thousands of further signatures were added en route. Ellen Wilkinson presented their petition in the House of Commons on 4 November.

The Government was unresponsive to the marchers’ demands, but in the run up to the Second World War, the establishment of military industries brought employment back to Jarrow with a ship-breaking yard, engineering works and a steelworks being established before 1939.