Today I attended a conference that was part of a series of events in Newcastle commemorating the occasion in 1967 when Doctor Martin Luther King was invited to the city to receive an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University. While in the United Kingdom Doctor King received only one such honour and here in Newcastle we're proud that honouring the great civil rights campaigner is a part of our heritage. Geordies have historically been proud to be a welcoming people and I am glad to live here. Newcastle is also an official City of Sanctuary and this year is known as Freedom City. There are racists here too of course, various social issues and we've got levels of economic disadvantages that are by no means the worst in Britain but which would be unknown to someone living in Guildford!
I was only able to make the first half of the conference unfortunately. The second half looked very interesting and included talks about people's experiences both working with refugees and being a refugee. I wanted to hear them but was getting pretty overwhelmed and anxious and ended up finding a quiet room that I possibly wasn't meant to be finding and hiding on the floor behind some chairs for a while before deciding that even if I did manage to get into the main hall again I wouldn't be able to take in anything that was said. Sadly, I had to leave.
The main hall was an interesting place to hold the conference. Because it was the place where Doctor King received his degree. He made a speech too. It's not as famous as "I have a dream ..." but it's worth listening to. Fortunately it's available on YouTube.
He speaks of three major problems affecting people in 1967.
Racism, poverty, and war.
Fifty years later none of those problems have been solved. Fifty years later there is still a need for people like MLK to speak out and act for justice. Some of the battles today are different. Some remain the same. Some things have improved. Unfortunately others have not.
During the first talk today I scribbled a few notes and thoughts. They've formed the basis for a bit of free writing this afternoon. I scrapped my first attempt because I could see it wouldn't work. The second is entirely unpolished. The form is not as I wanted but the idea is. Perhaps one day I will return to it and change the form.
I want too to write about the churches one day. About their involvement in civil rights both as a positive force and a negative one. Many of the churches who fought for equality on racial grounds are the very same churches who fight against equality on grounds of sexuality and who preach against transgender rights too. They say they're being Biblical. They said the same in 1967 too even though there were Christians of that day telling them they were being very unbiblical, and some who even talked about all black people being cursed. I could give you chapter and verse for that curse - at least, that's how they interpret it. It's a sad thing too that so many churches are still totally segregated both in the UK and here in the UK. There are white churches and black churches. And never shall they meet together unless Songs of Praise is being filmed. This segregation is rooted in a history of racism and oppression. Jesus wept.
If you want to know more about the Freedom City events the website is http://freedomcity2017.com/
Free writing attempt number one:
They said we stand on the shoulders of giants.
They were wrong.
Today I caught a glimpse of a giant
Caught hold of his coat and asked him to lift me up.
He refused to carry me.
Told me to stand on my own feet, find my own strength
And become my own giant.
Today I walked in the footsteps of a hero
Until he turned to face me, held out his hand,
And pushed me away with his wisdom,
Saying "You see where the tracks in the sand finish?
That's the end of my journey,
Make it the beginning of your own."
Free writing attempt number two:
I bowed before the dreamer.
Fell prostrate before the prophet.
In ignorance I spoke:
"When you spoke out your dream
The whole world listened.
When you spoke out your vision
The whole world changed.
For justice you were matyred
But your dream came true.
In death was your victory.
In suffering you won."
He answered. "Did I?
How can you bear to tell me such lies?
You think because we had a black president everything is renewed?
You think just because there are black men scattered
Irregularly in government that justice is borne out in the lives of all?
You think legislation has triumphed over hatred?
Whatever gave you those ideas? Who gave such notions to you?
Just look around you again.
Look at my country, look at what we've become.
How can you say that I've won when I fought
For racial integration in the schools of America
And fifty years on they're more segregated than I ever dreamed?
How can you say the black man lives in the land of free
When our prisons are filled with my brothers
And our streets are unsafe. When my people
Are stopped, searched, Tasered, brutalised and killed
By the government funded police forces?
How can you say we're all equal now
When my brothers live in greater poverty in a divide
That keeps on growing in ever despairing circles,
When many of us can't gain employment from the white bosses
And those of us who do end up still bottom of the pile
Working lives, underpaid and hungry in fast food restaurants?
How can you tell me my dream came true
When black and white still can't meet together in a house of God
And when the Ku Klux Klan still burns it's anti-Christian crosses
In hatred and its membership roll continues to blossom?
How dare you point to one black President and say I won
When he's gone, and racism rules in our nation again,
When every freedom that one black man achieved for us
May be wiped away as quickly as the tears that fall from my eyes today?
How can you say we all walk hand in hand when the normal response
To learning that the life of a black man matters
Is to say that all lives matter? As if all lives are the same.
As if there is no privileged place for those of lighter skin.
And when my brothers and sisters continue to die young
And live their shortened years deprived of basic rights
You cannot tell me I no longer need to dream that dream."
I closed my ears and shook my head.
Placed my hand over his mouth.
I did not wish to listen to such words
When it was easier to rest in satisfaction
Easier to congratulate the fighters of the past
And turn my back on the fight of the present.
Anyway, that was his country not mine.
So what did it matter to me?
Why care if their justice has been trumped?
He threw my hand off, stared at me in anger.
"If you won't consider my nation, look at yours.
You think everything is perfect? You damned fool.
Race relations acts, equality acts, every kind of act?
Do you fancifully fantasise that a mere piece of paper
Can change a million hearts? You couldn't be more wrong.
See too how those acts are rarely enforced and impermanent.
They give out Human Rights and then take them away.
Look to the broken windows of the black family
On your own estate, how they were forced to flee.
Look to the insults you've seen on the street.
Take note for once and take action for the abused.
See how the Nazis gather even at your own freeom Monument
Under other names but full of the same hate.
Remember how many people clicked that they liked the
Fascists and racists of Britain First
Shared their ravings, spread the word at exponential speed.
See how your own government promises justice
And then turns away from it as soon as they can.
How the welcome for refugees becomes a slammed door.
Remember how many millions still buy papers
Unashamed, boasting of the racist lies on the cover.
See how many of my brothers are in your own prisons,
How many are deprived in so called freedom.
If that isn't enough to convince you, consider this:
See how many black people you can see here today.
And I looked. He was right.
Fifty years before we had honoured him.
He'd stood on that same spot and we said we loved him.
Proclaimed him Doctor Martin Luther King.
I looked at the walls, the portraits staring down at the dreamer
I saw the ten white men in their robes.
And the one white women.
I looked too and I saw more women,
The inspiring women of the North East
Among their faces I tried to find some colour
A women I could point to as a sign of the Doctor's victory.
There was none to be found in those portraits of whitewashed inspiration.
Doctor Martin Luther King.
Alone of his colour.
As alone now as he ever was.
I bowed once more before the dreamer.
In revealed anguish I wept.
Asked what I could do.
He lifted me up, embraced me tightly
Saying "Be a brother to my brother,
A sister to my sisters."
Then he turned to the white walls and shouted.
"I still have a dream.
We shall overcome.