Worth fighting for
Sunday mornings are one of my favourite times of the week. As an early riser I have the house to myself for a few quiet hours to write, read or watch a bit of TV. Today I watched a programme on one of the history channels about the struggle for civil rights in the USA in the 1960s. To modern eyes the naked hatred and institutional discrimination which occurred in America in those days is simply appalling. There is a case for arguing that the USA still has a long way to go to live out its creed as a free and equal nation but the changes brought about by the sacrifice and courage of people back then were real enough. They faced brutality, violence and murder and much of it meted out by the forces of law and order which should have been protecting them. The long march to freedom of the African American people is not yet complete and what Lyndon Johnson called the, ‘crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice’ lingers on today.
Human beings seem at times unable to escape the tribalism which so often rears its head in history. We are in truth sometimes most comfortable in company of like-minded people and I can recall my old man talking about enjoying being with his ‘ain folk’ at Celtic Park on a Saturday. He wasn’t an exclusivist or bigoted man but here he could express his opinions, sing his songs freely and feel comfortable among people from a similar background. That group identity and loyalty is still strong among Celtic supporters and Archie McPherson once said that ‘it’s hard to think of a club so embedded in its community.’ That community realised at the inception of the club that if Celtic was to become a force in Scottish football it couldn’t limit itself to the Victorian ghetto of the Glasgow Irish community. Willie Maley, who was there at the birth of Celtic and played in the club’s first game in 1888 said…
"Much has been made in certain quarters about our religion, but for forty-eight years we have played a mixed team, and some of the greatest Celts we have had did not agree with us in our religious beliefs, although we have never at any time hidden what these are. Men of the type of McNair, Hay, Lyon, Buchan, Cringan, the Thomspons, or Paterson soon found out that broadmindedness which is the real stamp of the good Christian existed to its fullest at Celtic Park, where a man was judged by his football alone."
Maley knew Celtic needed to be inclusive to thrive but also knew the hard hearts of those in Scotland who despised the club would be difficult to soften. Having said that, Scotland as a whole absorbed more than half a million Irish migrants in a single lifetime without serious civil unrest and that says much about the common decency of most Scots. Yes there were bigots and racists who didn’t appreciate the newcomers but they exist in all lands at all times. It may not seem like it sometimes in an age where one moronic comment can be shared with thousands on social media but the real bigots are a minority. Of course to view the experiences of the Irish in Scotland through the lens of the African American experience demonstrates clearly that while hatred has similarities everywhere, the black experience of prejudice in the USA was infinitely more brutal, pernicious and deep rooted.
The founding generation of Celts would be happy that their offspring have assimilated into Scottish society so well and now rightly take their place in every trade, profession and position in the land. Those early Celts would also be delighted to see so many people from all walks of life, all faiths and none and all ethnicities proudly calling themselves Celts. That inclusiveness is the Celtic ideal and if on occasion some of our fellow fans fall short in word or deed it doesn’t change the fact that Celtic is for all and that is the foundation the club is built upon. Walfrid’s club was forged in adversity and demonstrated that despite experiencing poor treatment at times it was best not to become insular and inward looking. The people who founded Celtic built a stadium for 60,000 when the biggest average crowds in football were scarcely 10,000. That forward thinking is the mark of an institution going places.
Watching the struggles of the African American people on TV this morning was a sober reminder of the power of hatred. It was noticeable though that among the thousands who marched on Montgomery, Alabama or to Washington to hear Dr King speaking of his ‘dream’ there were many white faces. Moral issues such as racism or segregation led to good people joining the struggle from all racial groups. In some ways this teaches us that such struggles are seldom a simple battle between black and white, Catholic and Protestant or in current terms between Islam and the west; the struggle is usually between the decent people in all communities and those who, for whatever reason, revert to hate or violence.
I once wrote of the only time in my life I was seriously contemplating giving up going to watch Celtic. The realisation that some of our own could behave so despicably towards an opposition player because of his race appalled me. What kept me on board though was the reaction of the bulk of the Celtic support who called out the morons who abused Mark Walters in 1988 for what they were. One Fanzine described them as ‘racist arseholes’ and told them in uncompromising language that this was not what Celtic was about. Someone once said, ‘evil thrives when good people do nothing,’ in that sense I’m glad the good people among the Celtic support refused to allow those few individuals to act as they did with impunity.
Whenever I raise issues of bigotry among supporters of Rangers I get the odd message telling me that my opinions are based on hatred of the Ibrox club. I bear hatred towards no one but feel it right to point out the behaviour of a minority at Ibrox who seemingly intimidate the decent supporters there into silence when it comes to their less cerebral songs. At Inverness this week we had the incongruous sight of players holding up cards saying ‘Show racism the red card’ whilst at the same match their supporters sang songs about being up to their knees in Fenian blood. They surely see the irony? For many who sing such songs it’s all posturing and empty gestures but in joining in these songs they embolden the more dangerous types into thinking their warped world view is acceptable.
The point of what I’m saying this morning is that decent people, no matter what club they follow, must continue to fight for a healthier more tolerant society. No group or community in any society holds all the virtue or wisdom.
I’m glad the Celtic support was quick to challenge a few foolish young men in 1988. It would have been greatly disturbing if they hadn’t. Martin Luther King once said…
‘In the end we remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.’
Thankfully our friends among the Celtic support were not silent in the wake of idiotic intolerance. Celtic means a lot to a lot of people and some things are worth fighting for.
We must always guard that we never become that which we claim to despise.