• Home
  • Vol 25 No 4
  • Good race relations is not just an American thing, it's democracy

Good race relations is not just an American thing, it's democracy


Poster for movie 'Selma'Martin Luther King’s birthday on 19 January is a public holiday here in the USA.  This year it was a much more political affair than it has been in recent years.  The spate of police killings of young African American men such as occurred at Ferguson caused the whole country to take pause, wondering what is happening in race relations.  

Last Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the first of the voting right marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  Ultimately King led those marchers to Montgomery, the state capital, seeking the franchise for all Americans.  

The movie Selma was launched over the long weekend of the King birthday holiday.  It’s a great study in race relations even though it is marred by a too simplistic condemnation of President Lyndon B Johnson who was doing all he could to secure the changes through Congress.  The change required action both by King and Johnson.  It is often that way.

On the Boston College campus, faculty and students gathered to talk about race in modern America.  They held a wonderful celebration of song, dance and stirring evangelical rhetoric led by Rev Brandon Crowley, pastor of the Myrtle Baptist Church.  That stirring black Baptist preaching was a change from the usual Jesuit preaching on the campus!  

The celebration was called ‘Wade in the Water’, the title of one of the old negro spiritual hymns which draws on the Old Testament Exodus theme of crossing the sea to freedom, as well as the scene in John’s gospel at the pool of the Sheep Gate: ‘From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had.’

I had the opportunity to visit the grand monument to King in Washington DC earlier in my stay, when the weather was kinder.  I also stood at the spot in front of the Lincoln Memorial where King delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech in August 1963.  Each time I have called King to mind, I have remembered his letter to the white clergy he sent from Birmingham Jail earlier in 1963.  I have been challenged and inspired by his observations about the role and stance of the ‘white moderate’. He wrote to his white fellow clergy:

I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Being a white moderate, his challenge has stayed with me.  

On Saturday, black Congressman John Lewis who led the first of the bloody Selma marches had the honour of standing on the bridge and introducing the black president Barak Obama who walked the bridge with his wife Michelle, daughters Malia and Sasha, in company with his predecessor George W Bush and wife Laura.  Obama spoke with great religious and nationalist fervour.  Recalling the bloody events of 50 years ago, he said,  ‘It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills’.  

Lewis and his fellow marchers ‘kept marching towards justice’.  The marchers singing their gospel songs were Christian and Jew, black and white, young and old.  Obama acknowledged the presence in the crowd of the white journalist Bill Plante who had covered the march 50 years ago writing the observation, ‘The growing number of white people lowered the quality of the singing’.  

Obama surmised, ‘To those who marched though, those gospel songs must never have sounded so sweet’ and eventually ‘their chorus would reach President Johnson’.  Change did come but ‘many in power condemned rather than praised them.  They were called everything ‘but the names their parents gave them.  Their faith was questioned.  Their lives were threatened.  Their patriotism was challenged.’

To those who think there is no longer a race problem in the US, Obama said, ‘Ferguson is not just an isolated incident.’  To those who think there has been no change, he said that incidents like Ferguson are ‘no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom’.  Obama put the challenge, ‘We know the march is not yet over’ and he provided the hope: ‘laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built’.

Good race relations still has a long way to go in the USA; so too in Australia.  The police thin blue line is often a good place to start when reflecting on the issue.  Aboriginal imprisonment rates in Australia are still a national disgrace.  They are worse than when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was convened.  

We Australians also need to wade in the water.  We need the co-operation of the Johnsons and the Kings.  All parties need to be at the table, listening respectfully before committing to joint action.  That’s the way you close gaps and work towards constitutional recognition.  It’s not just an American thing: it’s democracy.

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ, professor of law at Australian Catholic University, is presently Gasson professor at the Boston College Law School.  He will launch his book No Small Change: The Road to Recognition for Indigenous Australia at the forthcoming Sydney Writers' Festival.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, race relations, Selma, Martin Luther King, Lyndon B. Johnson



submit a comment

Existing comments

When I listened to Noel Pearson's eulogy for Gough Whitlam, I felt immense pride and deep dismay. Pride that a fellow Queenslander had made such an impressive and passionate speech and dismay that much of the oppression and racism he spoke about had occurred in Queensland. Sometimes it's difficult to listen respectfully when you feel like you're on the outside looking in. It's like the people you're attempting to talk to are from some parallel universe. Nevertheless, sound advice from a self-confessed white moderate, Frank, but I suspect one who empathises with 'the outsider' a bit more than the average moderate.

Pam | 09 March 2015  

Spot on as usual Father Brennan As a fellow moderate white I too am conscious that in race relations as in most endeavours worth pursuing we need to match rhetoric with deeds worthy of the cause King and Johnson did it;now its our turn

pfhoban@gmail.com | 10 March 2015  

" Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.".......... The same situation exists in tackling a more difficult and serious problem; - that of achieving cooperation and unity-in-diversity among the world's religions, each seeking God along different paths geared to their cultures and traditions, and assuming that theirs is the only 'true' path. Affirmative action rather than grudging condescension is needed to resolve the strife, hostility and wars based on religious divisions.

Robert Liddy | 10 March 2015  

Excellent reminder Fr. Frank. The issue remains close to home with us. 41 years after the appearance of the iconic and historically foundational figure of Mungo Man, his remains, stored in the ANU,still have nowhere to go, not even a grave let alone an appropriate memorial place . A near-half century of State and Commonwealth neglect The day he comes home to Lake Mungo will be a day of national celebration. Until we recognise those values of Spirit he and his dark descendants, our Aboriginal cousins offer, that dark issue of racial stain lurks deep in our national psyche. Mungo Man needs our help to release that energy of Spirit. We need that Selma moment. The amazing history of this continent's foundation people offers a step in that direction. The celebration of its iconic peoples, Mungo Lady and Mungo Man call us to awaken to that day. The Aboriginal people have much to offer us. Where are those songs of celebration?

Jim Bowler | 10 March 2015  

Thanks Frank for you once again conciseness bringing Selma into a contemporary setting..as I write I think of the genocide of the Tasmanian aboriginals and the injustices of past and present generations towards others.

Denis allen | 10 March 2015  

Many difficulties in race relations are due to the handing down of Bad Traditions. In ’Mississippi Burning’ it was said, ’That’s the way Negroes are treated in Mississippi. That’s the way they’ve always been treated. That’s the way they always will be treated.’ Similarly in Religions, the tradition has been, ‘God intervened to show us our way’. Only when it is realised that God ‘works’ through Constant and Universal Laws, and does not ‘have favourites’ or work ‘miracles’ will we remove the barriers that prevent universal understanding and cooperation between religions, and allow God’s Peace and Harmony to reign, and so truly understand God’s Call.

Robert Liddy | 10 March 2015  

Today Fr Frank you have reminded us of the great "I have a dream" contribution to democracy from Martin Luther King Jnr. For me (and perhaps too for Robert Liddy) you have introduced a priceless gem from King's thinking in the quote, "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill-will." I will treasure this as I do King's "dream "speech, and Paul Keating's speeches at Redfern and the tomb of the unknown soldier, the only speeches in this country's polity that for me approach King. Mind you though, Neil Pearson went close!

john frawley | 10 March 2015  

There are lots of things wrong with American society. On the same day that a black President was declaring that entrenched racism still cast a dark shadow over American society a busload of white college students sang a Fraternity song that no black man (They used the N word) would ever be a member of their Fraternity. There's the paradox. Against all the odds an African-American could be elected President. In spite of all their privileges white college students practise apartheid in their Fraternity. But then maybe they have an example set by Congress where the Republicans ( and especially the Tea Party) have used every dirty trick in the game that is US politics to stymie the President's reforms and to undermine his authority. As I said in the beginning there are lots of things wrong with American society but there is also a lot of good. But good deeds rarely make the headlines. I am sure Fr Brennan and other Jesuits who have worked in America could give us numerous examples of the good work the Catholic church is doing as it 'wades in the water'.

Uncle Pat | 10 March 2015  

It's an education to drive from Columbus to Cincinnati, Ohio. Halfway down the highway you start noticing the Confederate flag painted on barn roofs, and Ohio is nowhere near the real 'South.'

David Timbs | 10 March 2015  

Uncle Pat: " I am sure Fr Brennan and other Jesuits who have worked in America could give us numerous examples of the good work the Catholic church is doing as it 'wades in the water'....... I wonder what the answer is to the question: "Are there any Negro Jesuits in America?"

Robert Liddy | 10 March 2015  

'Good race relations still has a long way to go in the USA; so too in Australia.' That is an understatement, Frank. I would encourage you to describe the true situation of Australia in your future articles. In your position, you can assist marginalised, educated Catholic people of colour like myself by exposing the deceitful systems we, educated people of colour, continually face in Australia to our detriment. As you are aware, the parliaments in Australia has more than 90% of parliamentarians of Anglo Celtic Saxon origin, and of this more than 90% again has over 100 years of family history in Australia, ensuring the ethos and thinking of generations of old, are unequivocally passed down through permutation and permeation, intergenerationally. When parliaments and industries across the board in Australia includes people of colour besides those of Anglo Celtic Saxon origin, only then will the true identity of Australia be recognised and confirmed and only then will change, human rights, humanity and social justice be rightly understood, heard and acted upon. The US is light years ahead of Australia on this front. We continue to suffer as the people that put us in this position are the very people from which we must seek help, only to no avail. There is no high socio economic demographic in Australia that is dark skinned (unlike in the US), hence we can only turn to white Australians and no one wants to deal with the truth. There is no Bill of Rights in Australia, the only Westerm democracy in the world not to have one. This forces highly educated professionals of color to rely on the adage "She'll be right mate" only to our detriment. The laws in Australia are made by whites for whites and so we that immigrate to Australia as skilled migrants from educated, high socio economic families, unbeknowst to us of the systems in Australia, are forcibly placed on trajectory of becoming economic refugees. As a minority, we have no protection and no recourse in the current law. As a Catholic, to know and deceive people is inexcusable. The book 'Who is Worthy? The role of conscience in restoring hope to the Church' in Australia ISBN 1864030879 written by Fr Ted Kennedy, will give you insight into the Australian systems of 'lies,lies & statistics' etc and into the lack of assistance and level of detachment by the white authorities towards dark skinned people going back to the 1800s in Australia. When are writers like yourself going bring light over the darkness of these deceitful systems, when are you going to table legitimising equality in Australia, pushing for affirmative action programs in your establishments and most importantly bringing home rights for us, dark skinned people? I believe you have a duty as you know the truth but are remaining quiet. We all have to face God one day. Every year my comments relay the same intent but our pursuit of justice falls on deaf ears while the pursuit of injustice grows. We cannot obtain help from white Australians as it is not there ethos. How must we survive? As Australian citizens, we want the credit for our own work, we want to hold the rightful position and salary for the capabilities delivered, we want to take care of our families whatever color they may be, the way white Australians are so richly afforded. We want the right to acquire capital and equity. We want to live the life we were meant to live, not this small untenable life of handouts so readily promoted and acceptable by white Australia for educated dark skinned people.

Jackie | 11 March 2015  

"You went close too, John Frawley", Noel Pearson thought to himself with a wry smile.

Paul | 11 March 2015  

Bugger it, Paul !!!! Hopefully Noel will forgive my old age falter!

john frawley | 11 March 2015  

Today at mass here at Boston College we remembered James Reeb, the white clergyman from Boston who was murdered at Selma. He died on this day 50 years ago. Martin Luther King Jr said his murder 'cannnot be considered an isolated incident in a smooth sea of tolerance and understanding. We must all confess the Reverend Reeb was murdered by a morally inclement climate'. 'Had police not brutally beaten unarmed nonviolent persons desiring the right to vote on Sunday, it is doubtful whether this act of murder would have taken place on Tuesday.' The three white locals who bludgeoned Reeb were later acquitted by an all white jury.

Frank Brennan SJ | 12 March 2015  

Uncle Pat. "Good deeds rarely make the headlines". This has been recognised for centuries, notably by that great Catholic country lad, Billy Shakespeare, who recorded for posterity, "The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones". (Julius Caesar)

john frawley | 12 March 2015  

In response a few readers mentioning Noel Pearson's eulogy of Gough Whitlam, it brings to mind a statement made by Nelson Mandela, former South African Leader, "In eulogies to the departed, the works of the living sometimes bear little relation to reality." Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were heavyweights in the ring who did their duty to their country and their people. And that is why the names of only very few people are remembered beyond their lives.

Jackie | 12 March 2015  

Good relations is something fundamental to a good society. America is nowhere there and nor is Australia. Why are we allowing people to be sent to Manus Island and Naru. Because they are unwanted people. They are not white and they are not Christian. We are hypocrites here in Australia. People should go to the Detention Centre in Broadmeadows. There is an address but you can't find it. It is behund the army barracks. People in the area have no idea it exists while good, educated people are incarcerated for ever. Nazi Germany did the same. Thereisenstadt was a town then turned into a showcase detention centre. We are no better.This is due to racial prejudice. We here in Australia are better people than those fleeing from danger in other countries where our forces are trying to introduce democracy. What kind of democracy? The type that labels people and then allows them to be incarated, abused, mistreated, humiliated and deprived of human dignity.

Mira Zeimer | 12 March 2015  

Similar Articles

Remote 'lifestyle choices' need careful consideration

  • Myrna Tonkinson
  • 13 March 2015

The PM's cavalier use of the term 'lifestyle choice' is totally inappropriate when referring to the people who will be affected by the proposed closures of remote Aboriginal communities. Undeniably it is expensive to sustain remote living, and effective schooling and health services are unfeasible. But we must avoid arbitrary decision-making, and implicit disparagement of people in remote communities.


Nuclear weapons the biggest threat to our security

  • Sue Wareham
  • 12 March 2015

Competing for attention with the Gallipoli landing centenary is this year’s 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. New evidence suggests that even a nuclear war involving a very small fraction of the world’s arsenals would result in the atmospheric accumulation of so much particulate matter from burning cities that there would be reduced sunlight, agricultural decline and famine affecting possibly two billion people.   



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up