There is little doubt that Washington DC presents itself, to those looking inwards from the outside, almost purely in terms of the magnificent white marble and granite grandeur of the White House, the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. On a warm August afternoon in 1963, on those very steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking out towards a crowd of over two hundred and fifty thousand people, Martin Luther King delivered a speech that has been etched into our collective memory of the struggle of that era – a movement which not only fought for the rights of African-Americans but was so powerful that its call for fairness and equality that it resonated far enough to the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and inspire the Freedom Rides which symbolised the Indigenous Rights movement in Australia.
So some fifty or so years on from Dr King’s speech, the sun drew westward towwards the horizon on a rather quiet winter afternoon and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Day of Service slowly crept to a end. A day which should leave someone with a sense of accomplishment – a basic enough sense of having made a difference to lives of those not afforded the privileges which others are born into – ended in a strangely dejected manner. There is little doubt that the intent was harmless enough and no doubt at all that the enthusiasm was there but by the time the one and a half hours of speeches and pep talk that began the day finally needed in the ballroom of the Marvin Centre, by the time the nicely printed shirts and packed lunches of the day were distributed, the mood had already taken a turn towards what seemed like more than anything else, a misdirected effort. We had painted a fence but barely so, patches of new paint barely covering the old, that is, if covering it all – we left it a half finished job with seemed to be a poignant symbol for the day in itself. By the time we came around to cleaning up the scraps of coloured paper or cleaning the pale green, blue, red and orange paint off the brushes and rollers, a misdirected effort became an opportunity lost.
When I first came to Washington DC, I took a routine bus service to New York City. Moving outwards from Union Square station, there was an unmistakable movement from the exquisitely well kept parks that surrounds the national monuments and wide avenues to the crumbling shop fronts, graffiti strewn across their walls and their windows plastered with dusty and sun bleached “for lease” signs. It may be a certain cynicism which some characterise as quintessential to the Australian attitude but it was hard to connect how the several hours we had spent painting an otherwise well maintained wire fence made any sort of impact upon this almost second world within the boundaries of the city. Again I have no doubt that all all intentions were good but on my way to Georgetown, walking past a homeless woman camped alongside the banks of the Potomac, a plastic sheet draped across scrags of tree for a makeshift shelter, I realized that DC from the inside is truly a city of confronting contrasts – that barely beneath the pristine surface, as clichéd as it may be, the city embodies the very essence of a “have” and “have not” cross section of society.
Inside the very city where Dr King’s words continue to resonate in rhetoric, it seems as though these words inevitably fall silent upon the nameless faces of the poverty and disadvantage which nestles itself in amongst the city’s street, in between the cracks of its grand halls, columns and domes. As much as many celebrate what has been achieved by Dr King and his legacy, much more needs to be, and indeed, could have been done to genuinely hold fast to and honour Dr King’s vision of fairness and equality in America.