Unlearn your MLK quotes, It’s more than simply to Recognise
On August 23rd 1963 some 250,000 people marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where the crowd was addressed by Civil Rights Leaders and sung to by Music royalty. You will probably know this event as the March on Washington or the day Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, an event he organised. Some of this is true, you know it because it is what you have been told and what you have read. But it is by no means the whole truth and perhaps in this distortion of history we can see parallels in our own civil rights struggles, who really leads them and just exactly what are they about.
To begin with it is important to know the March was in fact titled, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The marches knew what they wanted, they made it clear and they had a list of demands. Dr King did not organise the march, nor was his speech some divinely inspired piece of oratory as delivered in sermons, he too had made clear before hand his demands and it had nothing to do with making people feel good. This was no Kumbaya collective that popped into existence a few days before, it was organised decades in advance, it was organised by an Athiest not a Reverend and the marches weren’t just there to hold hands, but to get paid! This may sit as equally uncomfortably with many in the social justice community as it does with conservatives, hippies and the religious but these are points of history that not only cannot be denied, they were made crystal clear by those who lead the March and should come as a very clear warning to those who follow modern day civil rights movements and think everything is the way that it is reported.
What many may not be aware is that Dr King, an invited speaker on the day by actual organisers, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin who read a list of demands to close the event, had already delivered his I Have A Dream Speech many times over. Again, this was not some divinely inspired moment of oratory brilliance, this was a well rehearsed speech that was designed to rally crowds around the central themes of economic justice, social inclusion and an end to life as second class “citizens”. But in case you don’t believe me, in case like many you would rather believe he was all inspiring and not about substance, when in fact his real substance was lifting people out of poverty, about distributing wealth back into he hands of the Black community…., perhaps you should listen to the words of the man himself.
Did you hear that, maybe you need to listen to it again, maybe we all need to listen to it again. Dr King knew very well that rights alone were not much good without the currency of a society that functions almost purely on capital. Food, housing, transport, health, education… without that cheque, what is the use of rights! Then add to that the almost entire lack of political representation, the ever expanding shifting of the Black population from the slave fields to the prison cells and a society that treats you with suspicion, contempt and often open hostility. Is it any wonder Dr King’s message extended beyond that of just a dream and why the organisers of the March on Washington called for jobs and read a list of demands, not aspirations, demands!
Now fast forward to Australia 2014, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are still the most discriminated against, still the most imprisoned, the poorest, the lowest life expectancy, the most unemployed, the highest infant mortality rates and the highest levels of preventable diseases in the land. But if you take your cues from the Mainstream media, politicians and yes, many of the same people who quote out of context Dr King you’d be forgiven for thinking that the “dream” that will free the First Nations people of this land is the Recognise campaign. You’d also be forgiven for thinking that this is a campaign almost universally supported by Aboriginal people. This is simply not the case, as with the March on Washington, Black folk in Australia are far more political astute than has ever been credited. Read for example the reporting of Amy McQuire from New Matilda, just one example of her work shows what is really going on out in the nation https://newmatilda.com/2014/08/19/fresh-push-treaty-emerges-shadow-recognise-campaign
McQuire – “Recognise is a campaign championed first and foremost by white politicians, and I would argue, largely derided by Aboriginal people themselves. As an Aboriginal journalist, I have met very few Aboriginal people supportive of the campaign. Sure, there are some out there – not all Aboriginal people think the same – but I would hazard a guess that a large percentage of the pretty PR pictures propped up by government cash do not resonate with most blackfellas”
Then of course we must dig deeper again and find the issues that almost universally unites the First Nations peoples of this land…. Land Rights, Sovereignty, Treaty! You will notice I very deliberately did not refer to Native Title “the recognition by Australian law that some Indigenous people have rights and interests to their land that come from their traditional laws and customs”. Because there is that word again, Recognition, Recognise. Simply recognising that the First People of this land were indeed the First People of this land does very little to effectively address the horrendous circumstances of discrimination and disadvantage. It does not put food on the table, deliver health and education services, free men and women from prison or end the wholesale looting of Aboriginal land by mining companies and large corporations.
So let us return to the March on Washington. Where once the Black men and women of America were slaves brutalised and killed and forced to work for no wage their first demand, their primary demand was spelled out in the very name of their March. They wanted jobs, jobs that as Dr King said far more importantly than a dream, was to be paid a CHEQUE! Just like the the United States where farmers, land owners and mining companies had been given Government hand outs, here too Mining companies pay almost no tax, a hundred years of farm subsidies have been paid and yet it is Aboriginal people who are on welfare? And where the First Nations once had Sovereignty of their own lands on this continent called Australia now the call, as it always has, echoes around communities. Not to be recognised in a legal document but to have full control, including legal, cultural and economic of the lands that nurtured it’s peoples for tens of thousands of years. So as you quote Dr King I urge you to dig a little deeper into his words and discover the real dream of equality. And as you wear a shirt for Recognition I urge you to listen to the voices of thousands of Aboriginal people who will tell the cheque they are coming to cash is not one that acknowledges the basic truth of history that this land was stolen, but that it is time for true land rights and a treaty.
Until then the cheques that simply seek to “recognise” will be returned, a “cheque which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds”!