I find Aboriginal affairs fascinating. Here is an article I wrote 12 months ago after visiting this community in northern Victoria.
Aboriginal activist William Cooper was as historically important as other world humanists such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi in his inspirational quest for human rights in Australia. Yet, even 75 years on, he and the achievements of his Yorta Yorta people still struggle to be recognised in Australia.
Here are three non-violent protests William Cooper led over 75 years ago at a time when Aboriginal basic human rights were non-existent and the achievements of Yorta Yorta Australians.
1. Australia Day – The Day of Mourning (Day of Hope), January 1938
The Day of Mourning (later changed to the Day of Hope) was a protest campaign calling for equal land and citizen rights for Aborigines in Australia. The protest was held on 26 January (Australia Day) 1938, which marked an important date as it was the 150th anniversary of white settlement.
Cooper proposed the protest on the 13 November 1938 after his previous attempts of petitioning for equal rights with the government, the King of England, the Federal Minister of Interior and King George V, received no formal response over a six year period.
Risking punishment and a severe public backlash from this protest, William Cooper, and his friends William Ferguson and Jack Patten, organised a peaceful march with a group to Australia House in Sydney. Key Aboriginal people came in from parts of NSW and Victoria to support William Cooper and Doug Nicholls (who would later become Governor of South Australia). On the same day the merger of the Australian Aborigines League and the Aborigines Progressive Association was announced to strengthen the civil rights movement.
In it he criticised the then government and insisted for change:
“This is the day they remember their achievements in subduing the land – and us – in bridging rivers, in building railways, in setting-up great industries. But we were doomed the day they landed. Let us have this day of mourning on 26 January-the whites’ Australia Day.”
The protest was staged during the Depression period many indigenous Australians were still wards of the state – not citizens – and had no real human right for freedom of movement and protest. Many were forced to live in places allocated to them (such as missions and reserves) without having the permission to move around freely. There was no policy on Aboriginals and the legislation system was completely fragmented. Torture, massacres, removal of children, the trafficking of women and physical abuse were common. They had no voting rights, no political rights, they were losing their jobs, had no housing and no land. In light of this backdrop, for an Aboriginal to stage a protest would have been ridiculed, if not dangerous.
The protest proved to be effective, with the National Missionary Council of Australia (NMCA) advocating in 1940, that the first Day of Mourning Aboriginal Sunday was to be celebrated the Sunday before the Australia Day holiday. In 1955, the Government changed this to be the first Sunday of July. It was then changed to NAIDOC week in the late 1960s.
2. March against Jewish persecution, December 1938
Later in 1938, Cooper, a strong opponent to the cruel persecution of the Jews, led a rally (the only known demonstration in Australia at the time) protesting against the Germans attacks in the “Night of the Broken Glass.” In it, he criticized the Australian Government, insisting that they take action against the violence and led a peaceful march from his house in Footscray to the German Consulate in Melbourne.
The march was relatively ineffective at the time. The story wasn’t discovered until 2002, when two Melbourne curators from the Jewish Holocaust Centre learned from a very small newspaper article that the then 78 year old Cooper led a protest against the cruel persecution in 1938.
The discovery drew international attention from the Jewish community, with William Cooper formally honoured as a “hero to the Jewish people” at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel in 2010, which was visited by Cooper’s grandson Alfred Turner from the Yorta Yorta Nation and Kevin Rudd, former foreign minister of Australia. While a street and justice centre has been named after him, he still remains relatively unknown in the general Australian population.
3. The Cummeragunja Walk-off, February 1939
In northern Victoria, the Cummeragunja Walk-off was the first-ever mass strike of Aboriginal people in Australia. Lasting over six weeks, the strike was a protest by 150 Yorta Yorta residents of the Cummeragunja Reserve against their poor conditions and treatment.
The protest began in February 1939, during the Depression, after Cooper suggested that they petition the NSW Aborigines Protection Board to remove the manager who was victimising them.
Another key influencer in the protest was Jack Patten, President of the Aborigines’ Progressive Association of NSW who had visited them a week before the strike. Two or three weeks after the Walk-off, the Aborigines’ Advancement League visited and helped with food and blankets as it was extremely tough for protestors. Many of them had no rations, supplies, and were scared whether their children would be taken away. The publicity was successful and by the end of 1939, the manager was replaced. The local Yorta Yorta football even winning all their games for that year.
WILLIAM COOPER – THE MAN
William Cooper was born in 1861 to Kitty Lewis and an unknown white father near the junction of the Murray and Goulbourn Rivers in Victoria, South East of Australia (the Yorta Yorta language district). At the age of 13, William, Kitty and grandmother Maria moved to Maloga Mission, where Aboriginal families such as theirs were offered food and shelter in return for converting to Christianity.
The Mission was founded by missionary Daniel Matthews, who was a young passionate man who was in constant dispute with shearers and station masters for their abuse of young Aboriginal women, some as young as 12, for their own pleasure. This led to many children, such as William, abandoned after their fathers had disappeared and was so prolific at the time that it led to a policy, known in Australia as the ‘half caste’ policy. Daniel took young William under his wing, and described him as having a “great aptitude for learning.” Daniel also encouraged the Yorta Yorta people, including William, to identify with the Jews of the Bible and envision themselves akin to the persecuted and suffering of Israelites.
William later went on to become a shearer, horse breaker and finally ended up working as a coachman for a former premier of Victoria, Sir John O’Shannesy. Throughout his 20s William married twice, once with Annie Clarendon Murri, who passed away when William turned 25 and secondly with Anges Hamilton.
The couple later settled on Cummeragunja (the word “home” in Yorta Yorta language). Cummeragunja was a reserve of 1,800 acres which had been set aside by the government for aboriginal people to farm and clear and became quite successful for wool, grain and timber products. William and Agnes had six children and William became widowed for the second time and with seven children.
Throughout the 1930s he moved to Footscray in Melbourne to campaign for assisting Aboriginal people suffering the after affects from the drought and the Depression. He also helped found the first Aboriginal political organisation, the Australian Aboriginal League.
Cooper was described as a gentleman and a non-violent demonstrator. He was certainly a thorn in the side of parliamentarians and Aboriginal Protection Boards. He was an effective fighter and lobbyist for the freedom of his people as well as having the courage and conviction to stand-up for other prosecuted people, such as the Jews. He died on the 29 March 1941 at Morropna, Victoria.
TIMELINE – CIVIL RIGHTS AND ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIA
1933-37: King George V petition
William Cooper organised his famous petition to King George V to demand equal rights for indigenous Australians.
1935: Federal control march
William led a delegation of Aboriginals to the Commonwealth seeking federal control of Aboriginal Affairs at government level.
1936: A league of their own
William founded the first Aboriginal political organisation the Australian Aborigines League.
1938: “Day of Mourning”
This was protest was on 26th January 1938, to coincide with the 150 year celebration of white settlement.
1938: Famous Jewish protest
Kristallnacht “Night of Broken Glass” Protest against Nazi oppression and persecution of the Jews of Europe
1939: Cummeragunja Walk Off
The first mass Aboriginal strike in this country.
1940: Declared National Aboriginal Day
Today this is now known as NAIDOC.
1941: Passing of William
On the 29 March 1941, William Cooper passed away and back into Dreamtime.
(William’s Dream). 90% Yes Vote!
1988: Commonwealth Bi Centenary Celebrations
William named as one of The 100 Greatest Australians.
2002: Discovery of William
Cooper connection in the Jewish newspaper
2007: Western Suburbs
Indigenous Gathering Place holds William Cooper Memorial Walk. (40 years since referendum)
2009: Martyrs Forest Tree
Planting Ceremony (Jerusalem)
William Cooper Footbridge (Footscray), The William Cooper Justice Centre
2010 World recognition:
Opening of the William Cooper Memorial Garden at the entrance to the World Holocaust Memorial Centre (Yad Vashem) in Jerusalem.
KEY YORTA YORTA AUSTRALIANS
William Cooper helped pave the way for many successful Yorta Yorta Australians, who sought freedom and to be recognised and valued. The fight still continues to this day for land and to be recognised. Here are some of the key achievers from the Yorta Yorta.
SIR DOUG NICHOLLS, FIRST KNIGHT & GOVERNOR
Sir Douglas Nicholls (Pastor) established the first Aboriginal Church of Christ in Australia, various hostels and National Tribal Council. He became the Governor of South Australia and earned a knighthood.
JIMMY LITTLE AO, MUSICIAN
Jimmy Little, was the first indigenous Australian to receive mainstream musical success. He was awarded an AO (Order of Australia) and in 2004 a public vote named him “a living Australian treasure”.
LIN ONUS AO, WORLD FAMOUS ARTIST
Yorta Yorta painter, sculptor and activist, Lin Onus developed a distinctive visual language from a combination of traditional and contemporary Aboriginal imagery. Lin Onus was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1993.
LYNCH COOPER, WORLD SPRINT CHAMPION
William Cooper’s son, Aboriginal athlete Lynch Cooper was named World Professional Sprint Champion after winning the 1928 Stawell Gift and the 1929 World Sprint Champion.
PROFESSOR WAYNE ATKINSON, ACADEMIC
Wayne is a descendant of the Yorta Yorta and the Dja Dja Whurrung people. His works in Indigenous studies embrace a broad range of areas, and for last two decades he has worked with his people on their historic struggle for land justice
MERLE JACKOMOS AO, COMMUNITY LEADER
Merle Jackomos is an elder of the Yorta Yorta nation and has helped improve lives right around Australia. In 1987, Merle received the Medal of the Order of Australia and in January 2012, Jackomos Hall, a new residence at Monash University was named after her.