Civil Rights, History, Now

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.

A smiling Faith Bandler surrounded by people raising their glasses to her.

Faith Bandler was toasted by the NSW Vote YES committee for leading the successful campaign for the 1967 referendum. Photo: National Museum of Australia.

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?

10 thoughts on “Civil Rights, History, Now

  1. Spot on, Yvonne. Not to mention Anzackery, I think that all sides of our politics are guilty of sanctifying the past, one way or another. There’s a tendency for us to do it our personal lives too (grandma always did it this way &c) and as you say, it wise to step back to analyse whether whatever it is, Is still serving our needs.
    For me, the local Jewish community of my childhood in East St Kilda are a shining light in this regard. They arrived in Australia with nothing but their memories of history, both the appalling recent history of the holocaust and their ancient history. And they rebuilt their lives and a community by restoring what was valuable, jettisoning what was not, and reinventing the story of the Holocaust to make it a triumph of survival and a warning.


    • I had not thought about this at the personal level, but you are right. We perpetuate family history almost at a subconscious level. The thing I most remember about what my year 7 social science teacher taught us was when she told us that even if people did not like what their parents had done, they unwittingly tended to copy them as adults. I have kept that in mind ever since. It helped me to catch myself slipping into a manner of behaviour that I knew as a child was negative. I had to work hard to overcome that. I am grateful to that teacher for pointing it out because if she had not I would not have been so aware of the possibility of me doing those things.


  2. Excellent!!! I totally agree with both you and Obama here. I liked how you adapted his words for Australia. Here in the U.S. the immediate context is the flagrant attempt to deny voting rights by demanding expensive and hard to get id cards–something that hits hardest at Blacks, those in poverty and the aged–who are likely to Democratic.


    • It is astounding how many barriers seem to be placed in front of people to vote in the United States. Voting is the foundation of democracy. America is proud of its democracy, but in a well functioning democracy every citizen’s vote counts, not just some.

      Having said that I hesitate to point the finger at just one country. The reason I wrote this is that we have serious issues we need to tackle with regards to justice and respect here in Australia. It is all too easy to criticise others and neglect to critique ourselves.


  3. I just love wallowing in the oratory of Obama – a real skill, as you say. Here in NZ we have moved along the path of remembering/revisioning our history, and it has been and still is painful for many. The guilt that comes with acknowledging that your own ancestors did things you totally disagree with! However many people are coming to the idea that history is to be used to guide present actions, through lessons learned, rather than being seen as tradition set in stone. Nicely written piece, Yvonne. 🙂


    • Thank you Suzanne! Yes, I remember the difficult moment when I realised what my ancestors had been part of. It is all too easy at that point to simply reject that uncomfortable thought and accuse those who talk about such things as being negative about our history. It is also too easy to pick and choose what we learn from the past and simply ‘learn’ that whatever our ancestors did was heroic and should be perpetuated today. I like how Obama moved away from learning from history and instead talked about how we can be inspired by history to do things differently from the past in order to create a better society today.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Associated with the right to vote are a host of equally important rights which you noted: the right to equal access to public venues, the right to equal access to education, to equal treatment by the law etc. I would say for many countries, the biggest battles for civil rights in the 1890-1918 era were those for women. 51% of the adult population had to struggle for the vote, access to employment, legal rights in marriage, universal health care, safe contraception etc.

    At least New Zealand and Australia got that struggle sorted early, before any other countries in the world. But even so, there are many women in 2015 still without their civil rights guaranteed.


    • I agree that women’s rights should be included in this list of rights. I think the ‘Civil Rights’ term usually refers to the campaigns of the 50s, 60s and 70s. During this period there were campaigns for equal pay for women etc. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer was published during this period. There were other things that occurred for women during this period which I am sure readers of this post could think of.

      One of the things I am painfully aware of is my lack of knowledge of the history of the 60s and early 70s. Children are never taught the history of the time they were born into. I tried to do a post about Gough Whitlam when he died and I realised that the only thing I could talk about from memory was his dismissal, everything else I would have to look up on websites and books etc. My children know more about the 1960s than I do.


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