The right to vote has been a struggle the world over. Agitation for the right to participate in the election of the government is a common them in the history of many nations. Associated with the right to vote are a host of related rights: the right to equal access to public venues, the right to equal access to education, to equal treatment by the law…
In recent weeks there have been many fiftieth anniversaries of momentous events of the Civil Rights era. The Civil Rights movement had its heart in the United States but pulsed throughout the world. Recently in Australia the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Student Action for Aborigines’ freedom ride was marked by the original freedom riders revisiting the places in country New South Wales where in 1965 they had shone the spotlight on how Aboriginal people were barred from accessing public venues. Aboriginal people had already gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1962, but it was not until the end of 1965 that Queensland became the last state to granted Australia’s indigenous people the right to vote in state elections.
Nearly two weeks ago thousands of people marched across a bridge in Selma, Alabama to mark the anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1965. It had been fifty years since an orderly group of people had marched across the same bridge in their quest for African-Americans in that locality to be allowed to vote. At this bridge they were repelled by police who charged with batons, tear gas and horses. Broadcast live nation-wide, this unprovoked attack by police galvanised the nation and contributed to the passing of the Voting Rights Act by Congress.
At the foot of the same bridge two weeks ago, President Obama’s oratorical powers were unleashed. It was a speech replete with a rhetoric that spoke truth and was delivered with the rhythm, the pauses, the softness, crescendos and diminuendos that are rarely heard from public speakers in Australia.
President Obama’s speech had depth of content. It was a lesson on how to use history to meet the needs of society today. Throughout the speech President Obama reiterated the exceptional nature of the United States, yet as pointed out on the ABC, ‘The Drum’ website, most of his comments are applicable elsewhere in the world. Obama had pertinent things to say about drawing on history to inspire change today. Before I highlight these passages take the time to view his entire speech via the video above.
Obama explained how history should be used, not to restrict a nation to its past, but to inspire ongoing work to continually improve society for everybody:
It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo.”
History should never hold a society back from achieving greater things. We must never forget the past, the bad as well as the good, but as President Obama said, history should be a launching pad for something better. A law that was passed one hundred years ago may continue to be a shining contributor to the betterment of our communities. If it does not meet the needs of society today it needs to be replaced, even if that law had significant public support when it was first passed.
First and foremost, we have to recognise that one day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough. If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done. The American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.
Selma teaches us, as well, that action requires that we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.
Are we ‘the lucky country’, with all the implications of chance and doing nothing but reaping the spoils? Are the problems we are facing so overwhelming that ordinary people cannot do something about them in the face of the powerful? Faith Bandler was of Islander descent growing up in country New South Wales during the era of the white Australia policy. She marched past the difficulties and obstacles she faced to lead the campaign that resulted in overwhelming electoral support for the passing of the 1967 referendum – the referendum that allowed Australians to voice their approval for the equal treatment of Australia’s indigenous people. Her recent death should bring attention to what a quietly spoken, determined woman can do to inspire a nation to show its better self.
We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America.
We know that racial stereotypes have no basis in science. We know that every human being is equally capable of good, and that each is equally capable of bad. Yet too often we lapse into lazy thinking stimulated by a lousy experience. Prejudice, nastiness and hate are not embedded in our DNA. We add them later and so, with work, we can remove them:
To deny this progress, this hard-won progress – our progress – would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.
If we want to honour the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel as they did the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognise as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.
History does not tell us who we are, it tells us who we were. We determine who we are by our actions today. There is nothing ‘natural’ about history. As history was constructed by people in the past, we construct future history today by our own actions. We cannot blame the past for the wrongs of today. It is our responsibility to put in the effort and fix things. As the Chief of the Australian Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison said, “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. Obama called for ‘moral imagination’. Morrison called for ‘moral courage’. Where there is wrong around us we must take action to make it right. It is not acceptable to leave it to someone else to fix.
The marchers on Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 were ordinary people wanting change. They got off their couches to work for it. They had many fierce, unpleasant obstacles but they determinedly marched on. They did not shrug their shoulders and say ‘why bother’. They did not excuse the behaviour that denied some Americans the vote by saying that Americans were ‘naturally’ prejudiced. They knew the importance of having the right to vote. Do we understand this today?
As he was nearing the end of his speech President Obama put history in its rightful place:
That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing.
Australia is not a fragile thing either. The maturity of our nation is measured by our willingness to embrace our past, the bad as well as the good, and to embrace all our peoples, not just those who are like us. A sanitised, ‘airbrushed’ history does not make us appear great. It diminishes us all as it shows we don’t have the moral fortitude to acknowledge the wrongs of the past.
Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer. Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge.
There are many bridges before us today. Do we have the courage and determination to cross them?