I have a dream…

A personal reflection on a speech that changed the world

Usually my blogs here are about writing and productivity training but occasionally I like to write other things as well. This is one such occasion.

Speeches that changed the world

Browsing the local bookstores a few months back I was able to pick up a bargain copy of Speeches that Changed the World. Had I not pulled it from the bookshelf the other day in the course of clearing up and curled up with it for an hour, I would have missed an important anniversary and one that should be remembered.

Next Wednesday, 28 August 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s epochal speech, which put fire into the US civil rights movement that reverberated around the world. It is not too far-fetched to say that this was a call to arms that changed the way people looked at one another. Like the Kennedy assassination that happened a few months later, I remember that speech and the effect it had on me.

Growing up in the 1950s, in a white middle-class community on the outskirts of London, we thought we were masters of the world predestined to rule over it. White, Christian and Anglo-Saxon—we did indeed consider ourselves privileged.

I still remember the taunting in the playground of two Jewish boys we had in our primary class. After all, they were different. They did not go to Sunday School as the rest of us did; they were not boy scouts (or, rather, wolf-cubs as we were at that age) and they were excused from our daily worship before school. There were no black people in our community in those days, this was England of the nineteen-fifties and the doors had not yet opened to widespread immigration from the former British colonies but I am sure our attitudes to any black kids that appeared on our patch would have been equally callous, if not more so.

We did not see it as such of course. It was just the way things were in those days. In geography class we were taught that the reason Britain was wealthy was because it was cold. If people did not work hard they would not be able to survive. People from tropical climes did not have to work. It was too hot for them and besides for food, all they had to do was to shin up a coconut tree—and there was a picture in our Grade 3 geography book to prove it.

Why were we this way? Our attitudes towards others did not knowingly come from our parents. As far as I was aware the only prejudice my father harboured was towards Adolf Hitler. He would blow a raspberry any time Hitler was mentioned on the radio or the TV. My mother would scold him but his retort was always that Hitler had taken away six years of his life (my late father was in the RAF). Aside from that we were a perfectly normal family.

No, our formative attitudes came from the playground through a process of osmosis. We were a microcosm of attitudes that lay latent in all of us. When you consider that this was a full ten years after the end of the Second World War and the discovery of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, looking back these attitudes were frightening. One can only imagine how much stronger these entrenched prejudices would have been had we been growing up in the Thirties. It is not hard to see how Fascism could take hold. The first half of the Twentieth Century must have been full of prejudice. I grew up with it and was guilty too. And I am ashamed of it.

But it was not just England. Australia was just as bad. Moving from primary school in England to high school in Adelaide, South Australia, the prejudice of the schoolyard was still there although this time it was the aborigines that were the butt of our prejudice and it was not that we knew any. Remember that this was well before the Australian Constitutional Amendment that gave aboriginals the right to vote—one of the few such amendments put to a national referendum that passed by an overwhelming majority I am happy to say.

There were no aboriginals within our school or in our neighborhood. Our knowledge was not first hand; again the culture of prejudice was showing through. In those days, one could get a drivers license in South Australia at the age of 16 simply by turning up at the Motor Vehicles Registry in Pirie Street, plonking down a one pound note on the counter and being set free on the roads. There were no ‘P’ plates, or graded licensing system. It was one size fits all be it a Morris Minor or a ten-ton truck; with a license you were free to get behind the wheel.

And how did the young boys of my youth celebrate this particular rite of passage. Well, one such initiation popular at the time was into the wonderful world of sex. After all, cars and sex were a natural combination. But not sex with the girls of our school of course. No, this particular ritual involved a three-hour road trip to Port Augusta to pick up a young aboriginal girl who for two shillings would allow the boys—any boys—to do the deed in the back of their (usually Dad’s) car. One of the boys in my class who had relatives ‘up north’ was able to organise it.  No, I did not partake but I knew a few who did.

Yes, horrible isn’t it? We can safely say this from this distance in time but the truth is that those were the values we grew up with. Worse yet, we hardly even gave it second thought.

And after all, America was no different. Indeed, we were superior to America or so we thought. Over in America, racial discrimination was enshrined in state law in many places; black people weren’t even allowed to ride the same buses as white folk; we saw it on the news every day. In Australia there were no laws discriminating against people of colour (other than the Australian Constitution that is—a pretty big exception). It was just the way things were.

We knew of the American civil rights movement of course from the songs of our heroes: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. But we were detached from it nonetheless; detached until 28 August 1963. Until that day, people had heard the name of Martin Luther King but few of us realized what a powerful force for change he was to become.

Then we heard his speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC before an estimated crowd of a quarter of a million people at the culmination of a civil rights march. There had been these marches before but none as big as this one. It was not the size of the rally that made this different and unforgettable; rather it was the words of this Southern Baptist preacher who spoke so powerfully and so eloquently about the evils of social injustice and inequality that his words resonated around the world and in all of us who listened to it.

After that day the world was different. We were all engaged. Our causes were all different but we marched. We marched in opposition to the Vietnam War; we marched in opposition to nuclear weapons and especially nuclear testing. we marched in support of freedom from hunger (Walk against Want) and we marched in support of the anti-apartheid cause.

We did not march for the Rainbow Coalition or for ‘land rights for gay whales’ as the cover-all protest march was later to be known as. Our causes were much more fundamental. But underpinning it all was the recognition that we were a prejudiced people and that we needed to take a stand against injustice.

Martin Luther King changed so many of us. It was a tectonic shift in human attitudes that those who did not live through that time can scarcely realize. The ‘Sixties’ was a decade of change: change in relationships, change in attitude to leadership and change in attitudes towards sexuality. The Germans have the best word for it for which there is no real English equivalent, Weltanschauung. And all of it expressed in that emotive carrier of all—music. Martin Luther King set us free.

…when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

We have come a long way over the past fifty years but just as we as individuals are all a work in progress, so are our societies. It is as well sometimes to remember this. From the distance of half a century, the problem as I see it is that we are no longer inspired by our leaders and no longer prepared to focus on the big issues that affect all of us as human beings. Rather, we are all following the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) principle.

Just look at the issues being fought over at the coming Australian election. Climate change—probably one of the most important global issues of all time and one affecting all of humanity—has fallen off the radar (except for one would-be leader who appears to deny it is a problem); instead the election is about such sectoral issues as same-sex marriage and paid-parental leave. Even important domestic concerns that affect our future national productivity such as the national broadband scheme or education reform have become political footballs. We have certainly lost our way.

We again need leaders who will inspire; not only in Australia but everywhere.

For those of you have never listened to that speech of King, it is of course available on YouTube in various forms. I provide one such link below. Everyone should listen at least once.


Postscript: I realize that in present-day Australia, the terms ‘aboriginal’ and ‘black’ may seem offensive to some; these terms are used deliberately as the language we grew up with. I ask for understanding.

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One Response to “I have a dream…”

  • Di morris says:

    Dear Mike,
    Thanks for this piece of inspirational reflection. You speak as a person whose life has been lived as a world citizen, a quality of human being that this nation needs more than ever. You are generous with your gifts and equally, you demonstrate humility about them. You’ve seen your own share of being discriminated against, but you will always rise above it. Keep living the dream, Mike.

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