15 March 2018, United Nations, New York City, USA
I have been asked to tell you how to improve the lives of people with Down syndrome. The key is right there in my opening paragraph. It begins with "I am a man." See me as a human being, not a birth defect, not a syndrome. I don't need to be eradicated. I don't need to be cured. I need to be loved, valued, educated and, sometimes, helped.
What should that help be? Provide training to parents and babies as soon as possible. Provide medical care, eye exams and glasses. Send us to school with everyone else. Provide job training and coaches until we learn to work on our own. Most of all, expect competence, not failure. By the way, the cost to the rest of you of providing that help is the cost of a single cup of coffee per month.
What difference will inclusion, acceptance, and early intervention mean? Allow me to use my life as one example of what's possible. If it sounds like I'm bragging, it's because I am. I went to school with my neighbors; I was included in ordinary classes. The common kids and I learned from each other. I learned to fight for the right to be treated like everyone else. I have been to the White House twice, and I didn't have to jump the fence either time. I have had a lead role in a movie and a recurring role in an award-winning TV show, and my writings have been published all over the world. Last October, I spoke to the U.S. Senate. That testimony went viral. Over 160 million people have viewed it.
So, what is the point of all my bragging? Simply, that a life with Down syndrome can be as full and exciting as any other. My generation owes an awesome debt to organizations like the Lejeune Foundation and Special Olympics for freeing us from the prison of neglect.
I truly believe a world without people like me will be a poorer world, a colder world, a less happy world. To those who believe the world would be a better place without us, let me make three points.
First, we are a medical gift to society. Our extra chromosome makes us a blueprint for medical research in areas that include soft tissue cancer, heart disease, immune system disorders, and Alzheimer's disease.
Second, we are an unusually powerful source of happiness. A Harvard-based study has discovered that people with Down syndrome, their parents, their siblings, and people close to them are all happier than society at large.
Finally, we are the canary in the eugenics coal mine. Genomic research is not going to stop at screening for Down syndrome. We have an opportunity right now to slow down and think about the ethics of deciding that certain humans do not get a chance at life.
So, I have been a good guest. I have made you smile, maybe even laugh. Now, before I go, let me be Frank. How would the world react if a nation proclaimed that it would use genomic testing to make itself "Unpopular Ethnic Minority Free by 2030?" The U.N. has all a name for this – but we need not go there. Instead, let us pledge together to welcome diversity. Let us decide from this day forward to include, not exclude; educate, not isolate; and celebrate, not terminate. Thank you.
25 September 2017, San Antonio, Texas, USA
I don’t think about some platform that I have. I’m an individual. I live in this country. I have the right to say and think what I want. It’s got nothing to do with my position. If it helps someone think one way or another about something, great. But the discussion has to take place.
Obviously, race is the elephant in the room and we all understand that. Unless it is talked about constantly, it’s not going to get better. ‘Oh, they’re talking about that again. They pulled the race card again. Why do we have to talk about that?’ Well, because it’s uncomfortable. There has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change, whether it’s the LGBT movement, or women’s suffrage, race, it doesn’t matter. People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people, because we’re comfortable. We still have no clue what being born white means. And if you read some of the recent literature, you realize there really is no such thing as whiteness. We kind of made it up. That’s not my original thought, but it’s true.
It’s hard to sit down and decide that, yes, it’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash. You’ve got that kind of a lead, yes, because you were born white. You have advantage that are systemically, culturally, psychologically rare. And they’ve been built up and cemented for hundreds of years. But many people can’t look at it that way, because it’s too difficult. It can’t be something that’s on their plate on a daily basis. People want to hold their position, people want their status quo, people don’t want to give that up. Until its given up, it’s not going to be fixed.
Again, I'm just one dude walking around and that's how I feel.
(from start of video)
There’s a lot involved in that when you say culture and politics and sports. People write books about that. I would hesitate to take that on as a whole. It makes more sense to me to be a bit more specific, and I’ll just tell you what we say to our team.
Each one of them has the right and ability to say what they would like to say, and act the way they’d like to act. They have our full support and no matter what they might want to do or not do is important to them, respected by us, and there’s no recrimination no matter what might take place, unless it’s ridiculous egregious. There’s a line for everything. But we do live in a difficult time and it doesn’t do a whole lot of good ...
We all know the situation and it gets beaten up every day by talking heads, it starts to get personal. I think we all know why, we all know who the source where a lot of the division comes from, but to dwell on that is sometimes I think is the wrong way to go, because it’s so obvious now. It’s boring. The childishness, the gratuitous fear mongering and race baiting, has been so consistent that it’s almost expected. The bar has been lowered so far that I think it’s more important to be thinking about what to do in more organic roots based level. Thinking about the efforts to restrict voter registration, comments that demean cultures, ethic groups, races, women. Those sorts of things. What can be done in an organic way to fight that?
We know how everything happens, we know where the power in the country is, we know the racism that exists. But it’s gone beyond that to a point where I’m more worried about, and confused by, the people around our president. These are intelligent people who know exactly what’s going on. They basically were very negative about his actions but now it seems like it’s condoned. We saw it this weekend with his comments about people who should be fired or people who shouldn’t be allowed to do this sort of thing. I wonder what the people think about who voted for him, where their line is, how much they can take, where does the morality and decency kick in?
I understand very well they didn’t like their choice, economically. A lot of people had a problem. And he was the right guy at the right time to tap into that mood. But people overlooked one helluva lot to pull that trigger and vote in that direction, but it was because they wanted change, they felt ignored, they actually thought something would happen that would aid them. But at what price, is the question.
And as we see the actions over and over again, one wonders what is in their head. Have they come to the conclusion that they had the wrong vehicle? They might have had good ideas, good reasons why they wanted to go the way they went. But someone else that had a little bit more decency about how they approach other people and other groups might have served better. That’s what I worry about in the country.
You wonder about if you live where you thought you live. I just heard a comment this morning from a NASCAR owner and Mr. Petty that just blew me away, just blew me away. Where the owner described that he would get the Greyhound bus tickets for anybody to leave, and they’d be fired, and Mr. Petty, who said people who act the way we saw Sunday, they should leave the country. That’s where I live. I had no idea that I lived in a country where people would actually say that sort of thing. I’m not totally naive but I think these people have been enabled by an example that we’ve all been given. You’ve seen it in Charlottesville, and on and on and on. That’s not a surprise. Get over it. What do we do to get it done. To go to the grassroots and not allow this to happen again.
Our country’s an embarrassment to the world. This is an individual who actually thought that when people held arms during the game, that they were doing it to honor the flag. That’s delusional. Absolutely delusional. But it’s what we have to live with.
So we have a choice. We can continue to bounce our heads off the wall with his conduct, or we can decide that the institutions of our country are more important, that people are more important, that the decent America that we all thought we had and want is more important, and get down to business at a grassroots level and do what we have to do.
I guess that’s enough for now.
25 May 2017, AFL Studios, Docklands, Melbourne, Australia
Video starts at 5.04
Thanks for taking the time to listen to an old hasbeen.
Hopefully you'll take something away from my stories, and some of the guys I've looked up to over the course of my career, and obviously, my life.
I experienced racism playing for Salisbury North under 12s on a cold Adelaide morning in 1988.
I was an eleven year old kid. Having a reasonable game. Getting a few touches. Feeling okay about msyelf and my footy.
Then I hear a voice from behind, it's a kid's voice. "Make sure that abo doesn't touch the ball again.'
I responded with fists. I started swinging, wanting to lash out, to hurt somebody, hurt the person who had without any provocation decided to hurt me.
My mum was in my ear after that game. 'You can't respond like that my boy. You can't respond with violence. You gotta know they're gonna use it as a tactic. That's the way they're gonnatry to stop you and unsettle you.'
That was my introduction. There's not an Aboriginal player who's played the game who doesn't have his own version.
I see those old videos of Robbie Muir, the old Saints legend, going berserk in the mud at Moorabbin, and I can imagine, week in week out, what he must have put up with. And Chris Lewis, who missed 23 matches, 23 matches!, with suspension. He faced it every week too. 'You black so and so." Every week.
So oppositions knew what they were doing. They were targeting players, good players, and using their skin tone, their aboriginal heritage against them.
Twenty years later, Dermott Brereton apologised to him, face to face, on national television. The apology is to Dermott's credit. The original behaviour is not acceptable. Lewis's tormentors knew what my Mum knew. That racism could be used as a tactic. To quote Dermott: "We got word from a team that 'Lewy' had been put off his game by taunts, racially based, so we thought 'anything to curb this bloke's brilliance'.
It was Martin Luther King who said that 'the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends towards justice.'
I think that's true when it comes to indigenous Australia and footy. To the AFL's and the football community's credit, we are bending towards justice.
I played 303 games of AFL footy with the Swans, and not once was I subject to racial abuse by another player. Not once.
My first game was in 1995, just a few years after the incidents involving Chris Lewis in the early 90s.
Something changed in terms of what was acceptable on the footy field. And we know what it was. It was indigenous footballers saying enough is enough. Footballers like 'Magic' Michael McLean, who spoke up and said enough was enough. Like Michael Long, on that famous Anzac Day, calling out racial abuse and demanding an end to it. Like Nicky Winmar, raising his jumper to his vilifiers and pointing to that flawless black skin. 'I'm black and I'm proud'. Pain, defiance, courage, and the possibility for change - all in one photographic moment. May they cast the image in bronze one day.
These men agitated for change, and the AFL responded.
It created Rule 30, the first sporting body to make a rule prohibiting racial vilification. It transformed the workplace for aboriginal footballers, and the results have been staggering. Indigenous players now make up 11% of the AFL, with the number growing year by year. No longer are we thought of as erratic, or risky. We work and train as professionally as the other 89%. Some have a particular flair that sets them apart – Eddie Betts, Cyril Rioli, and of course Buddy Franklin. The noise in the stadium shifts gear when these players approach the ball. The Sir Doug Nicholls round is about celebrating the indigenous contribution to our indigenous game. In 2017, footy without aboriginal players just wouldn't be footy.
The relationship goes the other way too. Aboriginal Australia needs the AFL and its footy role models. So many of the current crop of indigenous stars are revered in their communities. They return there as heroes, as role models, leaders, beacons of hope and possibility for kids who love footy. Kids who are sometimes doing it tough in a country that hasn't closed the gap in health and education, between indigenous and white Australia.
2017 marks 50 years since the referendum changing the Constitution so that Indigenous people could be counted in the census. Only fifty years, fifty years!, regarded as proper Australians, as people!
Carlton champion Syd Jackson was born in desert country around Leonara in WA. He and his sisters were taken from their family, and raised in the missions. White people named him Syd after an actor of the times called Sid James. He was given 1st July as a birthday, because that was the start of the financial year. When Jackson was picked to tour Ireland with a combined Australian team in 1968, he didn't have a birth certificate which meant he had no passport. Tour organisers petitioned the Prime Minister, who organised the document. Syd Jackson carried that passporteverywhere for years, because it was a symbol that he was a valid Australian, that he counted.
Syd is a hero of mine, as are other indigenous football pioneers like Polly Farmer and Barry Cable.
As are the women and men who fought for our voting rights. People like Faith Bandler, Uncle Charlie Perkins, Jack and Jean Horner and Sir Doug Nicholls himself.
2017 also marks 25 years since the historic Mabo decision. it led to the Native Title Act, a revoking of the racist legal fiction that was terra nullius.
These were necessary steps, important steps. It's progress born of the activism and courage of people like Auntie Lowitja O'Donohue and Uncle Eddie Mabo.
It's the leadership of Senator Mick Dodson and Linda Burney.
It's the unwavering love and commitment of an educator like Aunty Alice Ridney, teacher of a thousand, transformer of lives. Aunty Alice was Australia's first aboriginal school principal, and like myself, belonged to the Kaurna and Nurungga Nations. She sadly passed away a fortnight ago. Australia a better place for her life lived.
For all the positive steps, I still feel frustration for the racism that plagues Australian society, and our wonderful game.
My best friend in footy, and in life, the great Adam Goodes. What happened to Adam in 2015 still fills my heart with sadness.
For all the positive change the AFL and players had enacted over two decades, Adam, as an Australian of the Year and outspoken advocate for our people, became a magnet for those who wanted to resist the positive force of change.
The booers were bullies and cowards. They could do it under the cloak of the masses. They were causing pain, they knew they were causing pain, and yet it continued. They defended themselves by saying that it was 'just booing', that they had a right to boo, that Adam's reaction was thin-skinned and an example of political correctness gone mad. But they kept it up, and they wore down the resilence of an unbelievalbe player.
And so a great of the game, a legend of this era and of all time, was hounded into retirement by an unrepentant section of the football loving public. That happened less than two years ago. As Stan Grant put it in his famous speech about Adam, 'every time we are lured into the light, we are mugged by the darkness of this country's history.'
Yet we are getting there.
Fans are calling out fans when they hear the unacceptable howls of racial hatred. Club are swift with punishments when incidents come to light. The players are a united front, led by the aboriginal stars, educating the public, telling them that it is no longer going to be tolerated.
And yet Eddie Betts gets targeted just a few weeks ago.
We still have a way to go.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
We will get there, as a country and as a code.
We will get there, because we're basically a nation of fair and decent people.
We will get there because men and women like Sir Doug Nicholls, Faith Bandler, and Adam Goodes were brave when they had to be.
To quote Barack Obama: "We honour those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar.'
Thank you very much.
27 February 2014, Hollywood, California, USA
I received a letter from a girl, and I'd like to share out, just a small part of it with you, dear Lupita it reads I think you, you're really lucky to be this black but yet this successful in Hollywood over night. I was just about to buy Dencia's Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin. When you appeared on the world map and saved me.
My heart bled a little when I read those words. I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful. In and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me.
I remember a time when I too felt un-beautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin and my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter skinned.
The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin, that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And everyday I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before.
I tried to negotiate with God. I told him i would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted.
I would listen to my mother's every word. [LAUGH] Sitting right there, and never lose my school sweater again, if he just made me a little lighter.
But, I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because he never listened. And when I was a teenager, my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine, happens with adolescents. My mother reminded me often that she thought I was beautiful. But that was no consolation, she's my mother. Of course she's suppose to think I'm beautiful.
And then, Alek Wek came on the international scene [SOUND] [LAUGH] a celebrated model. She was dark as night. She was on all the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was, even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact.
I couldn't believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome, and all of a sudden Oprah was telling me it wasn't.
It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But, a flower couldn't help but bloom inside me. When I saw a Alek, I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen. More appreciated by the far-away gatekeepers of beauty.
But around me, the preference for light skin prevailed to the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still unbeautiful. And my mother, again, would say to me, you can't eat beauty. It doesn't feed you. And these words played and bothered me. I really didn't understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or, or consume it was something that I just had to be.
And what my mother meant when she said you can't eat beauty was that. You can't rely on how you look to sustain you.What actually sustains us, what is fundamentally beautiful, is compassion for yourself, and for those around you that kind of beauty. That kind of beauty inflames the heart. And enchants the soul.
It is what got Patsy in so much trouble with her master. But it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit, even after the beauty of her body has faded away.
And so, I hope that my presence on your screens. And in magazine may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty, but also, get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty.
21 January 2017, Washington DC, USA
At a challenging moment in our history, let us remind ourselves that we the hundreds of thousands, the millions of women, trans-people, men and youth who are here at the Women's March, we represent the powerful forces of change that are determined to prevent the dying cultures of racism, hetero-patriarchy from rising again.
We recognize that we are collective agents of history and that history cannot be deleted like web pages. We know that we gather this afternoon on indigenous land and we follow the lead of the first peoples who despite massive genocidal violence have never relinquished the struggle for land, water, culture, their people. We especially salute today the Standing Rock Sioux.
The freedom struggles of black people that have shaped the very nature of this country's history cannot be deleted with the sweep of a hand. We cannot be made to forget that black lives do matter. This is a country anchored in slavery and colonialism, which means for better or for worse the very history of the United States is a history of immigration and enslavement. Spreading xenophobia, hurling accusations of murder and rape and building walls will not erase history.
No human being is illegal.
The struggle to save the planet, to stop climate change, to guarantee the accessibility of water from the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux, to Flint, Michigan, to the West Bank and Gaza. The struggle to save our flora and fauna, to save the air—this is ground zero of the struggle for social justice.
This is a women's march and this women's march represents the promise of feminism as against the pernicious powers of state violence. And inclusive and intersectional feminism that calls upon all of us to join the resistance to racism, to Islamophobia, to anti-Semitism, to misogyny, to capitalist exploitation.
Yes, we salute the fight for 15. We dedicate ourselves to collective resistance. Resistance to the billionaire mortgage profiteers and gentrifiers. Resistance to the health care privateers. Resistance to the attacks on Muslims and on immigrants. Resistance to attacks on disabled people. Resistance to state violence perpetrated by the police and through the prison industrial complex. Resistance to institutional and intimate gender violence, especially against trans women of color.
Women's rights are human rights all over the planet and that is why we say freedom and justice for Palestine. We celebrate the impending release of Chelsea Manning. And Oscar López Rivera. But we also say free Leonard Peltier. Free Mumia Abu-Jamal. Free Assata Shakur.
Over the next months and years we will be called upon to intensify our demands for social justice to become more militant in our defense of vulnerable populations. Those who still defend the supremacy of white male hetero-patriarchy had better watch out.
The next 1,459 days of the Trump administration will be 1,459 days of resistance: Resistance on the ground, resistance in the classrooms, resistance on the job, resistance in our art and in our music.
This is just the beginning and in the words of the inimitable Ella Baker, 'We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.' Thank you."
7 March 2015, Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama, USA
It is a rare honor in this life to follow one of your heroes. And John Lewis is one of my heroes.
Now, I have to imagine that when a younger John Lewis woke up that morning 50 years ago and made his way to Brown Chapel, heroics were not on his mind. A day like this was not on his mind. Young folks with bedrolls and backpacks were milling about. Veterans of the movement trained newcomers in the tactics of non-violence -- the right way to protect yourself when attacked. A doctor described what tear gas does to the body, while marchers scribbled down instructions for contacting their loved ones. The air was thick with doubt, anticipation and fear. And they comforted themselves with the final verse of the final hymn they sung:
No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;
lean, weary one, upon His breast, God will take care of you.
And then, his knapsack stocked with an apple, a toothbrush, and a book on government -- all you need for a night behind bars -- John Lewis led them out of the church on a mission to change America.
President and Mrs. Bush, Governor Bentley, Mayor Evans, Sewell, Reverend Strong, members of Congress, elected officials, foot soldiers, friends, fellow Americans:
As John noted, there are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided. Many are sites of war -- Concord and Lexington, Appomattox, Gettysburg. Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character -- Independence Hall and Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral.
Selma is such a place. In one afternoon 50 years ago, so much of our turbulent history -- the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham; and the dream of a Baptist preacher -- all that history met on this bridge.2
It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America. And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others, the idea of a just America and a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America -- that idea ultimately triumphed.
As is true across the landscape of American history, we cannot examine this moment in isolation. The march on Selma was part of a broader campaign that spanned generations; the leaders that day part of a long line of heroes.
We gather here to celebrate them. We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching towards justice.
They did as Scripture instructed: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” And in the days to come, they went back again and again. When the trumpet call sounded for more to join, the people came -- black and white, young and old, Christian and Jew, waving the American flag and singing the same anthems full of faith and hope. A white newsman, Bill Plante, who covered the marches then and who is with us here today, quipped that the growing number of white people lowered the quality of the singing. To those who marched, though, those old gospel songs must have never sounded so sweet.
In time, their chorus would well up and reach President Johnson. And he would send them protection, and speak to the nation, echoing their call for America and the world to hear: “We shall overcome.” What enormous faith these men and women had. Faith in God, but also faith in America.
The Americans who crossed this bridge, they were not physically imposing. But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation. They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, countless daily indignities -- but they didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before.
What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible, that love and hope can conquer hate.
As we commemorate their achievement, we are well-served to remember that at the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them. Back then, they were called Communists, or half-breeds, or outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse -- they were called everything but the name their parents gave them. Their faith was questioned; their lives were threatened; their patriotism challenged.
And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people -- unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents: “We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
These are not just words. They’re a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny. For founders like Franklin and Jefferson, for leaders like Lincoln and FDR, the success of our experiment in self-government rested on engaging all of our citizens in this work. And that’s what we celebrate here in Selma. That’s what this movement was all about, one leg in our long journey toward freedom.
The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.
It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America.
That’s what makes us unique. That’s what cements our reputation as a beacon of opportunity. Young people behind the Iron Curtain would see Selma and eventually tear down that wall. Young people in Soweto would hear Bobby Kennedy talk about ripples of hope and eventually banish the scourge of apartheid. Young people in Burma went to prison rather than submit to military rule. They saw what John Lewis had done. From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world’s greatest power and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom.
They saw that idea made real right here in Selma, Alabama. They saw that idea manifest itself here in America.
Because of campaigns like this, a Voting Rights Act was passed. Political and economic and social barriers came down. And the change these men and women wrought is visible here today in the presence of African Americans who run boardrooms, who sit on the bench, who serve in elected office from small towns to big cities; from the Congressional Black Caucus all the way to the Oval Office.
Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for black folks, but for every American. Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian Americans, gay Americans, Americans with disabilities -- they all came through those doors. Their endeavors gave the entire South the chance to rise again, not by reasserting the past, but by transcending the past.
What a glorious thing, Dr. King might say. And what a solemn debt we owe. Which leads us to ask, just how might we repay that debt?
First and foremost, we have to recognize that one day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough. If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done. The American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.
Selma teaches us, as well, that action requires that we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.
Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report3 shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country. And I understood the question; the report’s narrative was sadly familiar. It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement. But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed. What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic. It’s no longer sanctioned by law or by custom. And before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.
We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress, this hard-won progress -- our progress -- would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.
Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes. We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.
We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won. We know that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth. “We are capable of bearing a great burden,” James Baldwin once wrote, “once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”
There’s nothing America can’t handle if we actually look squarely at the problem. And this is work for all Americans, not just some. Not just whites. Not just blacks. If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel as they did the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.
With such an effort, we can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some. Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on -- the idea that police officers are members of the community they risk their lives to protect, and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland, they just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago -– the protection of the law. Together, we can address unfair sentencing and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and good workers, and good neighbors.
With effort, we can roll back poverty and the roadblocks to opportunity. Americans don’t accept a free ride for anybody, nor do we believe in equality of outcomes. But we do expect equal opportunity. And if we really mean it, if we’re not just giving lip service to it, but if we really mean it and are willing to sacrifice for it, then, yes, we can make sure every child gets an education suitable to this new century, one that expands imaginations and lifts sights and gives those children the skills they need. We can make sure every person willing to work has the dignity of a job, and a fair wage, and a real voice, and sturdier rungs on that ladder into the middle class.
And with effort, we can protect the foundation stone of our democracy for which so many marched across this bridge -- and that is the right to vote. Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, the Voting Rights Act stands weakened, its future subject to political rancor.
How can that be? The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic efforts. President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office. President George W. Bush signed its renewal when he was in office. One hundred members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right to protect it. If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year. That’s how we honor those on this bridge.
Of course, our democracy is not the task of Congress alone, or the courts alone, or even the President alone. If every new voter-suppression law was struck down today, we would still have, here in America, one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples. Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar, the number of bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life.
What’s our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future? Why are we pointing to somebody else when we could take the time just to go to the polling places? We give away our power.
Fellow marchers, so much has changed in 50 years. We have endured war and we’ve fashioned peace. We’ve seen technological wonders that touch every aspect of our lives. We take for granted conveniences that our parents could have scarcely imagined. But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship; that willingness of a 26-year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.
That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.
For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction -- because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.
Look at our history:
We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit. That’s who we are.
We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some. And we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That is our character.
We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free -- Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We’re the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life. That’s how we came to be.
We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.
We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent. And we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.
We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.
We are storytellers, writers, poets, artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.
We’re the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, and our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.
We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway.
We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of who “build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how.” We are the people Emerson wrote of, “who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long;” who are “never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”
That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing. We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe old age of 25 could lead a mighty march.
And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day. You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, because you’re ready to seize what ought to be.
For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there’s new ground to cover, there are more bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.
Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.
Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer. Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge. When it feels the road is too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah:
Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.4
We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.
May He bless those warriors of justice no longer with us, and bless the United States of America.
Thank you, everybody.
1 September 2016, Royal Palace gardens, Oslo, Norway
After having traveled around most of the country, it is very nice to be able to host representatives from all over Norway in our garden here at the castle! A warm welcome to our place, everyone!
You who are gathered here represents the width of what Norway is today. So what is Norway?”
Norway is high mountains and deep fjords. It’s plains and coastline, islands and islets. There are lush meadows and gentle hills.Sea crashing against the country from the north, west and south.”
Norway Midnight sun and polar night. It is both harsh and mild winters. There are both hot and cold summers. Norway is elongated and scattered inhabited.
But Norway is, above all, people.
Norwegians are northerners, troenders, southerners – and people from all the other regions. Norwegians have also emigrated from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Poland, Sweden, Somalia and Syria. My grandparents immigrated from Denmark and England 110 years ago.
It is not always easy to say where we are from, what nationality we belong too. What we call home, is where our heart is – and that is sometimes difficult to place within borders.
Norwegians are young and old, high and low, able-bodied and wheelchair users. An increasing number are over one hundred years. Norwegians are rich, poor and in between. Norwegians like football and baseball, climb mountains and sail – while others are most fond of the sofa.
Some have good self-esteem, while others are struggling to believe that they are good enough as they are. Norwegians are working in shops, hospitals, and oil platforms. Many Norwegians work to keep us safe, and many work to keep the country clean of garbage and looking for new solutions for a green future. Norwegians farm the land and are engaged in fishing.
Norwegians research and teach. Norwegians are engaged youth and experienced old. Norwegians are unmarried, divorced, families and old couples. Norwegians are girls who love girls, boys who like boys, and girls and boys who are fond of each other.
Norwegians believe in God, Allah, Everything and Nothing.
Norwegians like Grieg and Kygo, Hellbillies and Kari Bremnes.
In other words, Norway is you. Norway is us. When we in our national anthem sing; “Yes, we love this country,” we must remember that we also sing about each other. For it’s we who make up the country. Therefore, our national anthem also is a declaration of love to the Norwegian people.
My greatest hope for Norway is that we are able to take care of each other. That we in the future are going to build this country on trust, fellowship and generosity. That we shall know that we – despite of all our differences – are one people. That Norway is one. Again – a warm welcome to us and Our garden – I hope we get a nice time together!
28 January 1914, Manitoba, Canada
Nellie McClung was a Canadian suffragette from the province of Manitoba. Following a statment from the Premier of Manitoba, Sir Redmond Roblin, that giving women the vote would be tantamount to breaking up the home, McLung and fellow suffragettes staged a mock parliament. This was the most famous speech. Manitoba granted women the vote on 28 January 1916, exactly two years later.
(Hands in front, locking fingers with the thumbs straight up, gently moving them up and down, before speaking….Teeter back on heels.) Gentlemen of the Delegation, I am glad to see you. (Cordial paternalism) Glad to see you—come any time, and ask for anything you like. We like delegations—and I congratulate this delegation on their splendid, gentlemanly manners. If the men in England had come before their Parliament with the frank courtesy you have shown, they might still have been enjoying the privilege of meeting their representatives in this friendly way.
But, gentlemen, you are your own answer to the question; you are the product of an age which has not seen fit to bestow the gift you ask, and who can say that you are not splendid specimens of mankind? No! No! any system which can produce the virile, splendid type of men we have before us today, is good enough for me, and (drawing up shoulders, facetious) if it is good enough for me—it is good enough for anybody.
But my dear young friends, I am convinced you do not know what you’re asking me to do (didactic, patient); you do not know what you ask. You have not thought of it, of course, with the natural thoughtlessness of your sex. You ask for something which may disrupt the whole course of civilization. Man’s place is to provide for his family, a hard enough task in these strenuous days. We hear of women leaving home, and we hear it with deepest sorrow. Do you know why women leave home? There is a reason. Home is not made sufficiently attractive. Would letting politics enter the home help matters? Ah no! Politics would unsettle our men. Unsettled men mean unsettled bills—unsettled bills mean broken homes—broken vows—and then divorce. (Heavy sorrow, apologetic for mentioning unpleasant things.)
(Exalted mood) Man has a higher destiny than politics! What is home without a bank account? The man who pays the grocer rules the world. Shall I call men away from the useful plow and harrow, to talk loud on street corners about things which do not concern them? Ah, no, I love the farm and the hallowed associations—the dear old farm, with the drowsy tinkle of cowbells at eventide. There I see my father’s kindly smile so full of blessing, hardworking, rough-handed man he was, maybe, but able to look the whole world in the face…. You ask me to change all this.
(Draw huge white linen handkerchief, crack it by the corner like a whip and blow nose like a trumpet) I am the chosen representative of the people, elected to the highest office this fair land has to offer. I must guard well its interests. No upsetting influence must mar our peaceful firesides. Do you never read, gentlemen? (Biting sarcasm) Do you not know of the disgraceful happenings in countries cursed by manhood suffrage? Do you not know the fearful odium into which the polls have fallen—is it possible you do not know the origin of that offensive word “Poll-cat”, do you not know that men are creatures of habit—give them an inch—and they will steal the whole sub-division, and although it is quite true, as you say, the polls are only open once in four years—when men once get the habit—who knows where it will end—it is hard enough to keep them at home now! No, history is full of unhappy examples of men in public life; Nero, Herod, King John—you ask me to set these names before your young people. Politics has a blighting, demoralizing influence on men. It dominates them, pursues them even after their earthly career is over. Time and again it has been proven that men came back and voted—even after they were dead.
So you ask me to disturb the sacred calm of our cemeteries? (Horrified) We are doing very well just as we are, very well indeed. Women are the best students of economy. Every woman is a student of political economy. We look very closely at every dollar of public money, to see if we couldn’t make a better use of it ourselves, before we spend it. We run our elections as cheaply as they are run anywhere. We always endeavour to get the greatest number of votes for the least possible amount of money. That is political economy.
(Responding to an outcry—furious) You think you can instruct a person older than yourself, do you—you, with the brains of a butterfly, the acumen of a bat; the backbone of a jelly-fish. You can tell me something, can you? I was managing governments when you were sitting in your high chair, drumming on a tin plate with a spoon. (Booming) You dare to tell me how a government should be conducted?
(Storming up and down, hands at right angles to the body) But I must not lose my temper (calming, dropping voice) and I never do—never—except when I feel like it—and am pretty sure I can get away with it. I have studied self-control, as you all know—I have had to, in order that I may be a leader. If it were not for this fatal modesty, which on more than one occasion has almost blighted my political career, I would say I believe I have been a leader, a factor in building up this fair province; I would say that I believe I have written my name large across the face of this province.
But gentlemen, I am still of the opinion, even after listening to your cleverly worded speeches, that I will go on just as I have been doing, without the help you so generously offer. My wish for this fair, flower-decked land is that I may long be spared to guide its destiny in world affairs. I know there is no one but me—I tremble when I think of what might happen to these leaderless lambs—but I will go forward confidently, hoping that the good ship may come safely into port, with the same old skipper on the bridge. We are not worrying about the coming election, as you may think. We rest in confidence of the result, and will proudly unfurl, as we have these many years, the same old banner of the grand old party that had gone down many times to disgrace, but thank God, never to defeat
3 February 2016, US Senate, Washington DC, USA
Mr. President, across the street at the Supreme Court, four simple words are engraved on the face of the building: Equal Justice Under Law. That’s supposed to be the basic premise of our legal system: that our laws are just, and that everyone – no matter how rich or how powerful or how well-connected – will be held equally accountable if they break those laws.
But that’s not the America we live in. It’s not equal justice when a kid gets thrown in jail for stealing a car, while a CEO gets a huge raise when his company steals billions. It’s not equal justice when someone hooked on opioids gets locked up for buying pills on the street, but bank executives get off scot-free for laundering nearly a billion dollars of drug cartel money.
We have one set of laws on the books, but there are really two legal systems. One legal system is for big corporations, for the wealthy and the powerful. In this legal system, government officials fret about unintended consequences if they’re too tough. In this legal system, instead of demanding actual punishment for breaking the law, the government regularly accepts token fines and phony promises to do better next time. In this legal system, even after huge companies plead guilty to felonies, law enforcement officials are so timid that they don’t even bring charges against individuals who work there. That’s one system.
The second legal system is for everyone else. In this second system, whoever breaks the law can be held accountable. Government enforcement isn’t timid here – it’s aggressive, consequences be damned. Just ask the families of Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Michael Brown about how aggressive they are. In this legal system, the government locks up people up for decades, ruining lives over minor drug crimes, because that’s what the law demands.
Yes, there are two legal systems – one for the rich and powerful and one for everyone else.
Last Friday, I released a report about the special legal system for big corporations and their executives. The report is called “Rigged Justice,” and it lists 20 examples from the last year alone in which the government caught big companies breaking the law – defrauding taxpayers, covering up deadly safety problems, stealing billions from consumers and clients – and then just let them off easy. In most cases, the government just imposed fines and didn’t require any admission of guilt. In the twenty cases I examined, just one executive went to jail – for a measly three months—and that case involved 29 deaths. Most fines were only a tiny fraction of the company’s annual profits, and some were structured so that the companies could just write them off as a tax deduction.
It’s all part of the rigged game in Washington. Big businesses and powerful donors – with their armies of lobbyists and lawyers – they write the rules to protect themselves. And when they don’t follow the rules, they work the system to avoid any real responsibility.
How can it be that corporate offenders are repeatedly let off the hook when the vast majority of Americans – Republicans, Democrats, Independents – want tougher punishments and stronger new laws for corporate crimes? Well, that’s how a rigged system works: Giant companies win—no matter what the American people want.
Right now we can see the rigged game in action. Republican politicians love to say they’re tough on crime. They love to talk about personal responsibility and accountability—when they’re back home in their districts. But when they come right here to Washington they’re pushing to make it even easier for corporate criminals to escape justice.
And here’s one example. It starts actually with a great idea: reforming the criminal sentencing system to help some of the thousands of people who have been locked away for years at low-level offenses. Legislators in both parties have been working for years slowly building bipartisan momentum for sentencing reform. This is enormously important – a first step away from a broken system where half our federal jails are filled with nonviolent drug offenders. But now, all of the sudden, some Republicans are threatening to block reform unless Congress includes a so-called mens rea amendment to make it much harder for the government to prosecute hundreds of corporate crimes – crimes for everything from wire fraud to mislabeling prescription drugs.
In other words, for these Republicans, the price of helping out people unjustly locked up in jail for years will be to make it even harder to lock up a white-collar criminal for even a single day.
That is shameful – shameful. It’s shameful because we’re already way too easy on corporate lawbreakers.
And that’s not all. Tomorrow, the House will be voting on another Republican bill. This one would make it much harder to investigate and prosecute bank fraud. Yes, you heard that right. Tomorrow, the House will be voting on a Republican bill to make it much harder to investigate and prosecute bank fraud.
Back when bankers triggered a Savings and Loan crisis in the late 1980s, more than a thousand of them were convicted of crimes, and many got serious jail time. Boy, bankers learned their lesson. Now, the lesson was not: “don’t break the law.” The lesson they learned was “Get Washington on your side.” And it worked. After systemic fraud on Wall Street helped spark a financial crisis in 2008 that cost millions of Americans their jobs and their homes, federal prosecutors didn’t put a single Wall Street executive in jail. Spineless regulators extracted a few fines and moved on. But I guess even those fines were too much for the big banks and their fancy executives, so now they’ve gotten their buddies in Congress to line up behind a bill that would gut one of the main laws – it’s called FIRREA – one of the main laws that the Justice Department used to impose those fines.
Mr. President, it has been more than seven years since the financial crisis. A lot of people in Washington may want to forget, but the American people have long memories. They remember how corporate fraud caused millions of families to lose their homes, their jobs, and their pensions. They also remember who made out like bandits—and they didn’t send us here to help out the bandits.
The American people expect better from us. They expect us to straighten out our criminal justice system and reform drug enforcement practices that do nothing but destroy lives and communities. They expect us to stand up against unjustified violence. But they also expect us to protect the financial system and to hold Wall Street executives accountable when they break the law. They expect us to hold big companies accountable when they steal billions of dollars from taxpayers, when they rip off students or veterans or retirees or single moms, or when they cover up health and safety problems and people get sick, people get hurt, or people die because of it.
The American people know we have two legal systems, but they expect us to fix it. They expect us to stand for justice. They expect us to once again honor the simple notion that in America, nobody is above the law.
And to anyone in Congress who thinks they can simply talk tough on crime and then vote to make it even harder to crack down on corporate criminals, hear this: I promise you – I promise you – the American people are watching. And they will remember.
1 November 2015, Schuster Performing Arts Center, Dayton, Ohio, USA
Thank you. What a special night. Karima, thank for the incredibly beautiful introduction. I'm really overwhelmed to be here, to be in this space with so many extraordinary people, so many extraordinary writers.
My grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved. She was born in Bowling Green, Virginia, in the 1880s. Her father was born in slavery in Virginia in the 1840s, and when I was a little boy my grandmother was always in my ear about her experience of growing up enslaved. And my sister's here with me, and our grandmother had a profound impact on us. When I would see my grandmother, as a little boy, she'd come up to me and she'd give me these hugs, and she would squeeze me so tightly I could barely breathe. And then if I saw her an hour later she'd say to me, she'd say, 'Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?', and if I said no, she'd assault me again, and I quickly learned to tell my grandmother, 'Mamma, I feel you hugging me all the time', and it was just this way that she had about her.
And when we got older, my mother would take my sister and I to Philadelphia, she fled Virginia at the turn of the century because of the lynching, and the trauma, the terror that was ravaging that part of the country, and she'd started her life in Philadelphia, raised my mom there and when I would go and visit her, when we would go and visit her as children, I would always be kind of struck by the city, 'cause we grew up in the country, and as I got older I got more courageous and I would explore different parts of the city and I'd venture farther and farther away from where she lived, and she would keep an eye on me, and every now and then she would warn me about things, and one day I'd been out with some boys I'd met on the street and we'd been kind of gone a long while and she was worried. When I got back, she told me, she said, 'Now you need to watch yourself, because people will judge you by the company you keep. I trust you, but I don't know those other boys, You just need to remember that people will judge you by the company you keep.'
And my greatest regret tonight is that my grandmother is not here, because if she was here, what I'd do is I would point to Gloria Steinem, I would point to Josh (Weil), and I would point to Jeff (Hobbs), and I would point to these amazing writers who have won this award and I would ask my grandmother, 'Mamma, do you still think it's true that people will judge me by the company I keep?'
Because if it is true, then that is prize enough in and of itself, I'm so thrilled, and to become part of this community, to become part of this family of authors and writers and thinkers and believers in the power of literature.
You know I wrote my book because I really think there are four things that we can all do, to create more peace, to create more justice.
I wrote my book because I'm persuaded that we all have to find ways to get proximate to the things that are creating tension, and conflict, and suffering, and inequality.
I believe there is power in proximity, I think when we choose to get closer to the spaces in our community where there's suffering and inequality, when we actually position ourselves in places where there's been abuse of power and we become witnesses, that's the only way we can actually create more peace.
You can't problem solve it from a distance. We get things wrong in politics because we're trying to make up solutions to far away, you hear things when you're up close, you see things when you're up close, there's power in proximity.
I'm the product of someone's choice to get proximate. My sister and I started our education in a 'coloured' school. In a community where black children were not allowed to go to the public schools. Lawyers came into our community and made them open up the public school in compliance with Brown vs. Board of Education. Because of that I got to go to high school, I got to go to college, I got to go to law school. And when I was in law school I got to meet people who were on death row, literally dying for legal assistance and that proximity not only told me that there was work that needed to be done, but it showed me that I had power. Not power rooted in intellect, not power rooted in talent or gift, but power rooted in witness. And when you get proximate, you can become a witness to the tactics, and the strategies and the power of peace. And I believe in proximity, and I think we can all get proximate, we don't have to live in another world, we don't have to be a writer, we can just be proximate in the spaces where there's trouble and discord and unhappiness and suffering.
The second thing that I'm persuaded that we have to do and it's the reason why I wrote this book, is that we have to change the narratives that sustain inequality. Mass incarceration in this country was created by bad policies. We decided to deal with drug dependency as a crime issue rather than a health issue, we let our politicians begin to promote the politics of fear and anger. They've been competing with each other over who can be the toughest on crime. We created mandatory sentences, we did a lot of just damaging things.
But the real threat is the narrative, that idea that we should stay angry, that we should stay afraid, and I will tell you whenever a country, whenever a community makes decisions rooted in fear and anger, you will abuse other people. Fear and anger are the enemies of peace, and we have to fight against fear, we have to fight against this judgement that is rooted in anger and bigotry, and that narrative has to change.
I also think we have to change the narrative in this country about race. We've all been infected by a disease, this disease rooted in a narrative of racial difference. For me, the great evil of so much of what we are dealing with is this narrative and we have to change that narrative, we have to talk about the things we haven't talked about. I love Margaret's book because I believe we have to talk about slavery in America. We never had the conversation we should have had a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, because of it we are still burdened by this legacy that slavery has created. The great evil of American slavery for me was not involuntary servitude, was not forced labour. The great evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference, we created. The ideology of white supremacy we created to legitimate slavery. And we never did anything about that.
If you read the 13th Amendment, there's nothing in there about the narrative of racial difference. There's nothing in there about the ideology of racial - of white supremacy. And because of it, I don't believe that slavery ended in 1865. I think it just evolved. It turned into decades of racial hierarchy, and terrorism, and it resulted in lynchings and terrorism. Older people of colour come up to me sometimes and said, 'Mr. Stevenson ...' I get angry. When I hear somebody on TV talking about how we're dealing with terrorism in the first time in our nation's history after 9/11.
We grew up with terror, we to worry about being bombed and lynched every day of our lives. The demographic of geography of this state, of this nation was shaped by terror. The African Americans in Dayton and Cincinnati, and Cleveland, and Chicago, and Detroit, in Boston and New York did not come to these communities as immigrants looking for opportunities, they came to these communities as refugees and exiles from terror, and we haven't told that story.
Even civil rights, I get worried, I hear people talking about the civil rights, and we're so celebratory. And I worry about that, because we haven't dealt with the fact that for decades in this country we humiliated people of colour, we burdened people, we battered people, we excluded people. My parents were humiliated every day of their lives. Every time they had to see that sign that said 'white' and 'colour' there was an injury. We told black people you're not good enough to vote, you're not good enough to go to the schools with us, and we haven't dealt with that.
I think we needed truth and reconciliation at the end of the civil rights movement and we didn't do it. And because of that we are now burdened with the presumption of guilt that follows too many people. it's why that young man was shot and killed in a Walmart. It's why there is such angst and insecurity and we have to change the narrative. We can't get to peace until we understand the narratives of bigotry and exclusion.
But, the third thing for me is hope. I wrote this book because I'm ultimately persuaded that we have to be more hopeful about what we can do. I believe things I haven't seen, I have to. I believe that we've got to find ways to resurrect our hope. I am persuaded that hopelessness is the enemy of peace. It is the enemy of justice. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists, and if we don't find ways to stay hopeful – the society that is most dangerous is the society made up of people who don't think that things can get better, who don't believe that they have the power to make a difference. That is the recipe for abuse of power.
And I wrote this book because I am persuaded, if we can get people to choose to get proximate, change narratives, and do hopeful things, we can create more peace.
But the final thing, the fourth thing that I wrote this book about is because I believe that if we really want to create more peace, if we really want to create more justice, we can't just get proximate, we can't just change narratives, we can't just be hopeful, we've got to do uncomfortable things, that the fourth thing
You cannot create peace, you cannot create justice, by only doing what is comfortable or convenient. I've read, I've studied, I've looked all over the world to find instances where oppression ended, where inequality ended, and every time I've read and studied, it ended when someone chose to do something uncomfortable. Doing difficult things is hard. I know it. But, I believe it's necessary and what a great community like this can do, when it chooses to do it, is change the world. I think there's a different metric system for those of who really believe in peace, who believe in the power of literature to sustain peace, and it was taught to me by this older man, I'll end with this.
This older man, I was giving a talk in a church some years ago, and this older man came into the church and he was sitting in a wheelchair, staring at me the whole time I was talking, he had this very stern, angry look on his face. And I, and I was worried about him, because he looked at me so intensely, he had me a little unnerved. And I was trying to get through my talk, but he kept staring at me. And I got through the talk and people came up and they were very nice, they were very appropriate, but that man kept staring at me. And when everybody else left, he got a little boy to wheel him up to me in the middle of this church. And this older black man in this wheelchair came up the isle of that church with this stern, almost angry look on his face, and when he got in front of me he put his hand up and he said, 'Do you know what you're doin'?' And I just stood there. And he asked me again, he said, 'Do you know what you're doin'?' And I stepped back and I mumbled something. I don't even remember what I said, and he asked me one last time, he said, 'Do you know what you're doin?', and then he looked at me and he says, 'I'm gonna tell you what you're doin'.' And that older black man looked at me, he said, 'You're beating the drum for justice. You keep beating the drum for justice.' And I was so moved, I was also really relieved, 'cause I just didn't know.
Then he grabbed me by my jacket and he pulled me into his wheelchair, he said, 'C'me here, c'me here, c'me here, I wanna show you something.' And this older man turned his head, he said, 'You see the scar behind my right ear?', he said, 'I got that scar in Green County, Alabama in 1963 trying to register people to vote.' He turned his head, he said, 'You see this cut I have down the bottom of my neck? I got that cut in Philadelphia, Mississippi, 1964, trying to register people to vote.' He turned his head, he said, 'You see this dark spot, see that bruise? I got my bruise in Birmingham, Alabama, 1965, trying to register people to vote.' And then he looked at me, and says, 'I'm gonna tell you something, young man,', he said, 'People look at me, they think I'm some old man, sittin' in a wheelchair, covered in cuts and bruises, and scars', he says, 'but I'm gonna tell you something. These aren't my cuts, these aren't my bruises, these aren't my scars,' he said, 'These are my medals of honour'.
And I will tell you something, that I believe that when we do the things that are necessary, when we get proximate, when we change narratives, when we stay hopeful, when we do uncomfortable things, we'll get nicked a little bit, we'll get cut, but, that's how we create peace. I believe in really simple things. I believe that each person is more than the worst thing they've ever done. I think of someone who tells a lie, they're not just a liar. I think of someone who takes something, they're not just a thief. I think even if you kill somebody, you're not just a killer. And the other things you are, is what a just society must find.
I also am persuaded that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, we talk too much about money in America. I believe that in this country and in communities like this, the opposite of poverty is not wealth. I believe the opposite of poverty is justice.
And finally, I believe that when I come to Dayton, and when I come to Ohio, when I go anywhere in this country, we can't really measure how we're doing, our character, our commitment to justice, our commitment to peace, by looking at how we treat the rich, and the powerful and the privileged.
I think you have to judge a community, it's character, it's commitment to justice, by looking at how it treats the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. And tonight, by shining this wonderfully warm, restorative light that you have created here in Dayton with me, tonight by embracing me and the kind of work that I do, you've made me believe that the times I've been nicked, the times I've been cut, the times I've been scarred have not been times that have been wasted, but you've made me believe that through your light, and yes, maybe through your embrace and through your love, those nicks and cuts and scars can be turned into something that is truly honourable.
And for that, I cannot tell you how grateful I am, I cannot tell you how honoured I am, and I cannot tell you I appreciate this moment and this recognition. Thank you all very, very much.
August 1999, Woollongong, Australia
I first would like to thank the Indigenous people of the Illawarra for inviting me to come today. I was here once before and some of those past memories have been stirred with some of you whom I have had a chance to speak with, so thank you.
Lord Mayor, Evelyn Scott, Linda Burney and all honoured guests, when I put my thoughts together to come and speak to you this morning, I found a module in my thinking. It was getting in the way. There was a little sadness because I felt the reconciliation program had slowed since 1967 and then the considerable support for those who sponsored racism excused some of their terrible utterances in the name of free speech, and then the terrible tragedy revealed to us of the stolen children.
So briefly I will try to portray my thoughts of these days and the days before. Earlier we thought our efforts were set in stone. But the track hasn’t been easy and it was not so. It is hard to say what we have heard and seen recently, to hear it without shame and anger, and those are two elements which tend to stand in the way of the planning of good strategies.
Some who are here today have lived, breathed, struggled and climbed those ramparts of the rugged past, and when reaching the summit, have seen the ugliness when looking down – the disagreeable habits of those who close their eyes to the past, the willing ignorance and blindness to other peoples’ way of life, those who long for a homogeneous society where all think alike.
But I’m pleased to say that out there, there are decent people. They may have different cultures, different political beliefs, but they know there is a need to heal the wounds of the past, the terrible indignities.
My learning was rather hard and slow. It took some time for me to understand, when there are millions in the world today who are hungry, millions who are homeless, millions who are without work, the wrongfully imprisoned, the deaths in custody, the tortured, the mass murder of women and children, why in the name of creation our differences should matter. Why is it so hard to find our commonalities?
The most commonly voiced opinions of some who are willingly blind is that we focus on the failures and faults and too little praise is given. But if praise must be given it ought not to be given to the powerful but rather to the powerless, who patiently bear the brunt of many misdeeds and indecencies.
So in the struggle to reconcile you said it’s about working together. That will mean lightening the burden of that terrible baggage that has to do with our differences. And in the short term, there’s a fair bit to do about it.
Many have worked with determination, at most times against tremendous odds, with the talk-back jockeys lined up against them, and those who are deliberately blinkered and our troubled relationships with them. They are chained in their stubbornness, but we are free, and if we need to go forward without them, then we must.
To the youth present, and the not so young, let me say this: this movement should be one wherein we should ask not what is in it for me, but what is in it for us.
The fair-minded people out there can come along with us. None is without fault, none is without blemish, but they greatly outnumber the objectionable and the crude.
At this conference we might ask ourselves if our efforts are enough to make this country a better place for those who come after us. So you, the younger who are present, and those who are not present, have a hard job to do. You have brought change, true, but to eliminate some of the inbuilt attitudes of this society, the task is yet to be tackled.
This year Australia is celebrating 50 years of citizenship. Before 1949 we were all British subjects. Well, some were: it’s not 50 years since Indigenous Australians has the right to citizenship.
We are not to forget the White Australia Policy, introduced at the turn of this century, excluded the peoples from South Africa, the peoples from the Pacific Islands and all Asian countries from Australian citizenship rights. Non-Indigenous Australians had the influence of the White Australia Policy, and those to whom it applied were considered, at times, less than human beings.
Thus the campaign for Aboriginal citizenship rights, carried on from 1957 to 1967, was rather difficult. And it’s time for us to remember that rights are not handed on a platter by governments, they have to be won.
This conference in its deliberations will consider land rights. In the efforts to hold and protect their land from the invaders in 1788, there were many who lost their lives. There were fierce battles and conflict and, true, there were lulls, in the move for land rights. But even in the most isolated communities, the people spoke about their land.
For the executive of my council, FCAATSI, land rights seemed to be put on the back burner. It was the most poverty stricken in the whole of Australia, so we had to be careful with what few resources we had. These were the matters that had to do with equal wages for equal work, particularly for the black stockmen, and other needs like housing, education opportunities, freedom of movement, the false arrests. So these problems had to be dealt with and faced and we had to mobilise the forces to meet those needs.
Until 1962. Alec Vesper came down from the community at Woodenbong in the north of NSW, and he drove us on to form a subcommittee for land rights. I recall Alec addressing the 1962 FCAATSI Conference with the bible in one hand and the dictionary in the other hand, and he told us all to get up and fight for land rights. The result of that was that a subcommittee was formed to deal with land rights and Dulcie Fowler was the secretary.
Ken Brindle, whom I know the Illawarra people will remember with great affection, once complained to me that he couldn’t talk to Dulcie, because all she could talk about was land
rights. Dulcie initiated a petition addressed to the Federal Parliament for Aboriginal people to reclaim their land.
It’s a fitting time to mention briefly the struggle of the people for land rights of Mapoon, Weipa and Aurukun, particularly when Bauxite was found on their lands. And we might take strength by remembering their brave actions to combat the mining companies.
Jean Jimmy came to the south from Mapoon, and she told us how her people were forced by the police into boats to leave their land and as they sailed from Mapoon they saw their houses and their church on fire. Jean Jimmy and her people had an unforgivable fault in the eyes of the white people. They said the land they lived on and the land their forebears lived on for thousands of years was theirs.
Friends, what is reconciliation about? It is about promoting discussion. It is about the rights of the Indigenous people. It’s about those rights being enshrined in legislation. It’s about being watchful and remembering, and remembering that governments only might implement, and they might not. It’s about the violation of the first people’s rights, and it’s about valuing the differences of those cultures that make up this country.
In 1975, the Racial Discrimination Act was introduced. All rights must now be recognised, and it’s our job to make sure that they are. It is rare that a government will deliver out of the goodness of its heart, but history has shown that a genuine people’s movement can move more than governments. It can move mountains.
Dear friends, much pain has been endured in the past, and that pain is no longer designated to hopelessness. It’s time to move the process of reconciliation forward with a little more speed. That is the task. If not now, when? If not us, who?
26 January 1938, Australian Hall, Sydney, Australia
Jack Patten was the President of the Aborigines Progressive Association. For this historic protest event, he wore a dark suit and cut the figure or a huge League footballer. But he was a brilliant speaker, one of the best of his era.
On this day the white people are rejoicing, but we, as Aborigines, have no reason to rejoice on Australia’s 150th birthday. Our purpose in meeting today is to bring home to the white people of Australia the frightful conditions in which the native Aborigines of this continent live. This land belonged to our forefathers 150 years ago, but today we are pushed further and further into the background. The Aborigines Progressive Association has been formed to put before the white people the fact that Aborigines throughout Australia are literally being starved to death.
We refuse to be pushed into the background. We have decided to make ourselves heard. White men pretend that the Australian Aboriginal is a low type, who cannot be bettered. Our reply to that is, ‘Give us the chance!’ We do not wish to be left behind in Australia’s march to progress. We ask for full citizen rights including old-age pensions, maternity bonus, relief work when unemployed, and the right to a full Australian education for our children. We do not wish to be herded like cattle and treated as a special class.
As regards the Aborigines Protection Board of NSW, white people in the cities do not realise the terrible conditions of slavery under which our people live in the outback districts. I have unanswerable evidence that women of our race are forced to work in return for rations, without other payment.
Is this not slavery?
Do white Australians realise that there is actual slavery in this fair, progressive Commonwealth?
Yet such is the case. We are looking in vain for white people to help us by charity.
We must do something ourselves to draw public attention to our plight. This is why this Conference is held, to discuss ways and means of arousing the conscience of White Australians, who have us in their power, but have hitherto refused to help us.
Our children on the Government stations are badly fed and poorly educated. The result is that when they go out into life, they feel inferior to white people.
This is not a matter of race, this is a matter of education and opportunity.
This is why we ask for a better education and better opportunity for our people.
We say that it is a disgrace to Australia’s name that our people should be handicapped by undernourishment and poor education, and then blamed for being backward.
We do not trust the present Aborigines Protection Board and that why we ask for its abolition. [applause]
Incompetent teachers are provided on the Government stations. This is the greatest handicap put on us. We have had 150 years of white men looking after us, and the result is, our people are being exterminated.
The reason why this Conference is called today is that the Aborigines themselves may discuss their problems and try to bring before the notice of the public and of parliament what our grievance is, and how it may be remedied.
We ask for ordinary citizen rights, and full equality with white Australians. [moved resolution]
April 2014 TEDxSydney, Australia
I grew up in a very small country town in Victoria. I had a very normal, low-key kind of upbringing. I went to school, I hung out with my friends, I fought with my younger sisters. It was all very normal. And when I was 15, a member of my local community approached my parents and wanted to nominate me for a community achievement award. And my parents said, "Hm, that's really nice, but there's kind of one glaring problem with that. She hasn't actually achieved anything." (Laughter)
And they were right, you know. I went to school, I got good marks, I had a very low-key after school job in my mum's hairdressing salon, and I spent a lot of time watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson's Creek." Yeah, I know. What a contradiction. But they were right, you know. I wasn't doing anything that was out of the ordinary at all. I wasn't doing anything that could be considered an achievement if you took disability out of the equation. Years later, I was on my second teaching round in a Melbourne high school, and I was about 20 minutes into a year 11 legal studies class when this boy put up his hand and said, "Hey miss, when are you going to start doing your speech?" And I said, "What speech?" You know, I'd been talking them about defamation law for a good 20 minutes. And he said, "You know, like, your motivational speaking. You know, when people in wheelchairs come to school, they usually say, like, inspirational stuff?" (Laughter) "It's usually in the big hall."
And that's when it dawned on me: This kid had only ever experienced disabled people as objects of inspiration. We are not, to this kid -- and it's not his fault, I mean, that's true for many of us. For lots of us, disabled people are not our teachers or our doctors or our manicurists. We're not real people. We are there to inspire. And in fact, I am sitting on this stage looking like I do in this wheelchair, and you are probably kind of expecting me to inspire you. Right? (Laughter) Yeah.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint you dramatically. I am not here to inspire you. I am here to tell you that we have been lied to about disability. Yeah, we've been sold the lie that disability is a Bad Thing, capital B, capital T. It's a bad thing, and to live with a disability makes you exceptional. It's not a bad thing, and it doesn't make you exceptional.
And in the past few years, we've been able to propagate this lie even further via social media. You may have seen images like this one: "The only disability in life is a bad attitude." Or this one: "Your excuse is invalid." Indeed. Or this one: "Before you quit, try!" These are just a couple of examples, but there are a lot of these images out there. You know, you might have seen the one, the little girl with no hands drawing a picture with a pencil held in her mouth. You might have seen a child running on carbon fiber prosthetic legs. And these images, there are lots of them out there, they are what we call inspiration porn. (Laughter) And I use the term porn deliberately, because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. So in this case, we're objectifying disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, "Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person."
But what if you are that person? I've lost count of the number of times that I've been approached by strangers wanting to tell me that they think I'm brave or inspirational, and this was long before my work had any kind of public profile. They were just kind of congratulating me for managing to get up in the morning and remember my own name. (Laughter) And it is objectifying. These images, those images objectify disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people. They are there so that you can look at them and think that things aren't so bad for you, to put your worries into perspective.
And life as a disabled person is actually somewhat difficult. We do overcome some things. But the things that we're overcoming are not the things that you think they are. They are not things to do with our bodies. I use the term "disabled people" quite deliberately, because I subscribe to what's called the social model of disability, which tells us that we are more disabled by the society that we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses.
So I have lived in this body a long time. I'm quite fond of it. It does the things that I need it to do, and I've learned to use it to the best of its capacity just as you have, and that's the thing about those kids in those pictures as well. They're not doing anything out of the ordinary. They are just using their bodies to the best of their capacity. So is it really fair to objectify them in the way that we do, to share those images? People, when they say, "You're an inspiration," they mean it as a compliment. And I know why it happens. It's because of the lie, it's because we've been sold this lie that disability makes you exceptional. And it honestly doesn't.
And I know what you're thinking. You know, I'm up here bagging out inspiration, and you're thinking, "Jeez, Stella, aren't you inspired sometimes by some things?" And the thing is, I am. I learn from other disabled people all the time. I'm learning not that I am luckier than them, though. I am learning that it's a genius idea to use a pair of barbecue tongs to pick up things that you dropped. (Laughter) I'm learning that nifty trick where you can charge your mobile phone battery from your chair battery. Genius. We are learning from each others' strength and endurance, not against our bodies and our diagnoses, but against a world that exceptionalizes and objectifies us.
I really think that this lie that we've been sold about disability is the greatest injustice. It makes life hard for us. And that quote, "The only disability in life is a bad attitude," the reason that that's bullshit is because it's just not true, because of the social model of disability. No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. Never. (Laughter) (Applause) Smiling at a television screen isn't going to make closed captions appear for people who are deaf. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshop and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille. It's just not going to happen.
I really want to live in a world where disability is not the exception, but the norm. I want to live in a world where a 15-year-old girl sitting in her bedroom watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" isn't referred to as achieving anything because she's doing it sitting down. I want to live in a world where we don't have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning. I want to live in a world where we value genuine achievement for disabled people, and I want to live in a world where a kid in year 11 in a Melbourne high school is not one bit surprised that his new teacher is a wheelchair user.
Disability doesn't make you exceptional, but questioning what you think you know about it does.