The fight for Aboriginal civil rights

By Emma Young 26 May 2010
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The “unsung heroes” of the Aboriginal civil rights movement are detailed in a new exhibition.

MOST AUSTRALIANS ARE AWARE of the fight for Aboriginal land rights – but the fight for civil rights is much less well known. Now the stories of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who worked together to fight for justice for Aboriginal people are being revealed in a Melbourne exhibition.

“These are the unsung heroes,” says Kim Moulton, project officer at Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum, where the exhibition, which covers the period 1920 to 1970, is being held. “While they and their stories are very well known in certain communities, their history hasn’t been taught to the broader public, and people just don’t know about it. Yet these people made huge waves of change.”

A painting of Anthony Martin Fernando, an Aboriginal man from Sydney, is one of the exhibits. After being prevented from giving evidence in a trial, Fernando left Australia in disgust. He travelled to Europe to write and talk about the status of Aboriginal people in Australia.

Push for change

In the 1920s, he stood outside Australia House in London wearing a coat covered in toy skeletons. “His message was that this is what the Australian government has done to his people,” says Jay Arthur, curator of the exhibition.

Fernando wasn’t well received, and he died in home for destitute old men in London. But an Australian woman named Mary Bennett who heard him talk decided that she had to do something. She travelled from England  back to Kalgoorlie in WA, and began to campaign for Aboriginal rights.

“This exhibition is about how ordinary people changed things,” Jay says. “It wasn’t the government who decided the situation wasn’t good enough – it was these mixture of people, indigenous and non-indigenous, who said we don’t want Australia to be this way.”

As well as legal discrimination, social discrimination was common. Even into the 1960s, in many areas Indigenous people were expected to sit in certain seats in buses, and in separate seating in cinemas. Returned Indigenous servicemen couldn’t enter RSL clubs, and women who went into dress shops were often expected to buy the first dress that they tried on.

National day of mourning

“Australia was a bit like Alabama. But there were no signs, so most Australians these days don’t realise how bad it was,” Jay says.

Gradually, thanks to the efforts of people including those documented in the exhibition, things changed. On January 26, 1938, on the 150th anniversary of colonisation, the Aboriginal leader William Cooper led a national day of mourning, to protest at the treatment of his people. “It really raised awareness of the struggles of Aboriginal people,” says Kim, who is related to William.

Eventually, in 1967, after ten years of campaigning, 90 per cent of Australians voted in a referendum in favour of removing references in the Australian constitution that discriminated against Aboriginal people.

“This is the kind of exhibition that makes you proud and ashamed to be Australian at the same time,” Jay says. “You’re ashamed that things were so bad. But you’re proud of all these people who were so courageous.”

From Little Things Big Things Grow
was created by the National Museum of Australia and is on at Melbourne Museum, Nicholson Street, Carlton from 12 June.

A journey to fight racial discrimination