Sixty years after Martin Luther King’s ‘dream’, what will the Voice vote say about the content of our character?

It is the 60th anniversary of that glorious moment in August 1963, when a 34-year-old black preacher stepped before a thicket of microphones on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver what is perhaps the greatest oration in US history.

Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, it is often forgotten, might have never become a reality. Fearing the possibility of a race riot on the doorstep of the White House, and also the besiegement of Congress, President John F. Kennedy lobbied for the cancellation of the March on Washington. Furthermore, little in its early passages suggested that King was delivering a speech for the ages, since for once, he struggled to find his rhythm.

Noel Pearson, like Martin Luther King, has a rare speechifying power.

Noel Pearson, like Martin Luther King, has a rare speechifying power.Credit:

Only when the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was standing at his shoulder, urged him to “tell ’em about the dream, Martin” – poetry she had heard him recite before – did the speech take oratorial flight.

The rest is epic history. As he shared his vision of a country in which blacks would be judged on the content of their character, not the colour of their skin, King subpoenaed the conscience of white America. By doing so, he helped build public support for landmark legislation passed the following year, the Civil Rights Act, which demolished segregation in the South, and brought his dream of racial equality a quantum leap closer. King seized the historical moment. America became much the better for it.

Though the history is different, and the situation not directly analogous, there’s a part of me that wishes that the Yes campaign would stage a similar set-piece speech, ideally with Uluru as the backdrop. But I realise, of course, that Australians are wary of such stage management and grandiloquence. That said, the text of an Australian iteration of the “I have a dream” speech, shorn of King’s Biblical grace notes, but vested with much the same moral power, already exists in various forms. In less showy settings, in a less showy way, one of the leaders of the Yes campaign, Noel Pearson, has been delivering it for months, and rehearsing it for decades.


Just as King spoke of how America could not fulfil its destiny while the African-American “still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land,” Pearson argues that Australia will never be complete unless First Nations peoples are given a proper voice. “Indigenous people can’t languish in an Australia that has the default setting of No,” he said at the Garma festival earlier this month. The country’s “ancient beginnings” should not just be a “story on the margins”.

Just as King tried to weave together various strands to produce a more inclusive American grand narrative without a wholesale rejection of the past, Pearson repeated at Garma what he has been saying for years, that by adopting the Uluru Statement From The Heart Australia, has “the chance to put our complete story together.” It is a trilogy of “Indigenous foundations,” “British institutions captured in the Constitution,” and “a glorious multicultural unity.” His essential promise is that: “These three stories can be brought together in this vote”.

A key message from King’s speech 60 years ago was that it would be “fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment”. Indeed, he spoke at a time when black America was in a state of near open rebellion, hence the fretfulness of the Kennedy White House.

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