A Martin Luther King dream for Australia


This week we celebrate one of the greatest milestones in the advancement of civil rights in the USA, Martin Luther King’s August 1963 ‘I have a dream’ speech. It is remembered for its arresting rhetoric, and also its vision for a future in which his children would ‘not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’.

The context was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at a time when opportunity was routinely denied to African Americans. The dream was that the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ guaranteed to all Americans in the country’s founding documents might indeed apply to all Americans regardless of skin colour. In a hopeful sign that dreams are rooted in reality, African Africans were progressively given opportunity and America now has its first black president.

King’s words have implications for the human rights of people all over the world, in particular those who are guaranteed rights by a particular convention or declaration but denied them by the political masters of the day. In Australia in 2013, it is relevant to the rights guaranteed to asylum seekers by the 1951 Refugee Convention but denied by political leaders of the two major parties.

If King arrived by boat seeking asylum in Australia today, his vision might be for a future in which his children would not be judged by how they got here but by the content of their character. He would be faced with the denial of opportunity to work and live freely by the harsh rules that apply to asylum seekers, especially with the likely revival of temporary protection visas.

In America 50 years ago, many whites associated African Americans with crime and delinquency, and consequently the content of the character was assumed to be poor. In cases where the character of African Americans was poor, it was invariably a result of their having been denied opportunity. Without jobs and freedom, human beings tend to drift towards lives that are held back by petty crime and drug addiction.

It is no different with asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat. Some political leaders persist in using the erroneous term ‘illegal’ arrivals, and this encourages Australians who don’t know any better to regard them as criminals who should not be given an opportunity to settle here. Without the opportunity to work or live freely, they suffer psychologically and they are indeed more likely to commit crime or suffer from drug addiction. 

Asylum seekers dream of life in another country in which they can enjoy the rights that belong to them as human beings. Such dreams are in fact rooted in reality, as we know from the practice of previous decades when asylum seekers arriving by boat from Indo China were judged not by how they got here but by the content of their character. Several decades on, the good character of the arrivals has produced better opportunity for all Australians, with a stronger economy and population diversity.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Image: 'I have a dream' mural, King Street, Newtown NSW.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Martin Luther King, asylum seekers, Refugee Convention



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Much water has flown under the bridge since the brave and transformative Freedom March in Washington DC in 1963. Martin Luther King, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Kevin Rudd's supposed hero, was no plastic saint, but a man with flaws, who nonetheless changed America. He was supported by many white liberals, as was the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. The Freedom March led, indirectly, to the election of Barack Obama, who had a loving white mother and whose development was as much in genuinely multiracial Hawaii where non-whites, mainly Asians and Native Hawaiians, had a long struggle to reach equality with the former white elite. The refugee matter you refer to Michael, is similarly not all (metaphorically) black and white but much more multicoloured. It is interesting that today's picture of refugees arriving at Christmas Island shows them looking quite white, by which I presume them to be Iranian. Iranians are immensely proud of their Aryan (as against Arab) ancestry. I think some of the simple faithful will be quite surprised at their self-confidence and education. They would not be an easy group to patronise, as they should not be.

Edward F | 24 August 2013  

Compulsory listening for asylum seeker policy makers in Australia: the deep anguish of Paul Robeson's "Ole Man River" and Martin Luther King's mesmerising I Have a Dream speech.

Pam | 25 August 2013  

The great, late Paul Robeson was not, I believe terribly enamoured with "Showboat": he changed the "n" word in Old Man River to "darkies" and never sang the original words again. At the event celebrating the Freedom March of 1963, Martin Luther King's grandson; the Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama paid tribute to the great man, the latter two saying they would not be where they are today but for him. But they widened what he achieved, which he would have appreciated, seeking to include other currently disenfranchised groups. These stories are American ones. One of the great things about Americans is they are proud to own their own history and move on from there. They don't look back. We need to do the same.

Edward F | 26 August 2013  

Thank you Michael for using lMartin Luther King's inspiring and hopeful words about the right to equality based upon recognition of our common humanity to highlight Australia's shameful deficit of equitable or humane values in our current public discourse and our practical response to people seeking asylum or refuge in Iur country today. MLK had a dream. It became a reality. Let us maintain the dream and work to make it a reality DownUnder.

Jane van beek | 26 August 2013  

There just seems to be a problem with accepting humans who may be classified as minorities. They may be different but open to positive growth in this new country, they want no part of the "mind games or Politricks", some even want to learn about the new culture and many are very well educated but unemployed because certain entities do not think they would "fit in", maybe Redneck deep Southerners are given preference in the Energy sector(WA,NT,SA) because of their bias. Be it Mr. King or any Human Rights activist, I think that everyone wants to have a job, roof over their head and a meal to share with their loved one's.The mindset in the Energy sector needs to be scrutinised regarding Equal Opportunity despite the majority of Companies are foreign owned. There seems to be a blatant imbalance despite an abundance of knowledge endowed humans who may be of a different ethnicity, not everyone was cut out for cleaning and not everyone is a drug addict or terrorist just normal human beings with genuine goals not over endowed ego's

D | 27 August 2013  

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