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As NAIDOC Week celebrations get underway around the country, 2013 also marks the 75th anniversary of the declaration of January the 26th as a Day of Mourning.
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UPDATED 10:48 AM - 26 Aug 2013

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

In 1938, a congress of Aboriginal people met in Sydney to demand equality and an end to celebrations marking the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.

From that meeting evolved the National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee, or NAIDOC, which has, today, expanded its observances from a day to a week.

And that's where this celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander culture began.

Uncle Boydie Turner, a Yorta Yorta man, still remembers what life was like for Aboriginal people in the 1930s.

"Yeah, things were pretty hard, and they had to put up with a lot of racism. And I remember that picture shows came, and it was Aboriginals to the left and whites to the right. In hotels, Aboriginal people drank on one side, and white people on the other. Very close to apartheid.

"I went through that as a young boy. I was taken to be enrolled in a white school, all-white school, knocked on the door, and the teacher said, 'Yes, what do you want?' And my mother said, 'Well, we just came to enrol the boys in the school here.' 'No,' he said, 'we don't want you here,' and slammed the door in her face."

It was at that time, on the 26th of January, 1938, that Australia celebrated the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet.

Uncle Boydie's grandfather, William Cooper, led what is often described as the first Aboriginal civil-rights protest in Australian history.

While Sydney was at a standstill following a re-enactment of the First Fleet, across town, a gathering of Aboriginal people formed with nothing like celebration on their minds.

The group was preparing for a protest march and a conference to declare the day a Day of Mourning.

Anne Martin is co-chairwoman of the national NAIDOC committee.

"On the national Day of Mourning and the gathering of the congress, they laid the foundation. And I think that, when the manifesto opened with the declaration, that 'This festival of 150 years' so-called progress in Australia commemorates, also, 150 years of misery and degradation imposed on the original native inhabitants by white invaders of this country,' I mean, those words, when they were said, must have been so powerful."

Prevented from marching during Sydney's Australia Day celebrations, the Aboriginal protest made its way to Australian Hall in Elizabeth Street late in the afternoon.

William Cooper, William Ferguson and Jack Patten led the way.

The speeches included a 10-point plan demanding equal rights as citizens and this declaration, as Ms Martin retells it:

"'We, representing the Aborigines of Australia, assembled in conference at the Austalian Hall in Sydney on the 26th of January 1938, this being the 150th anniversary of the white man's seizure of our country, hereby make protest against the callous treatment of our people by the white man in the past 150 years. And we appeal to the Australian nation to make laws, new laws, for the education and care of Aborigines and for a new policy that will raise our people to full citizen status, and equality within the community.' Just think, this was 150 years after the invasion. It makes you want to weep."

The 1938 congress was the culmination of years of unsuccessful lobbying.

In the early 1930s, petitions were sent to the Australian and British governments calling for Aboriginal civil rights and parliamentary representation, but they were ignored.

The New South Wales-based Aborigines Progressive Association, led by Jack Patten, and the Victorian-based Australian Aborigines League, led by William Cooper, decided on a different tactic.

Uncle Boydie remembers living with his grandfather in the 1930s.

"Grandfather was a very fair man. He proved that later in life, the way he stuck up for the Jewish people. He was a big man, and very quiet. He didn't say much. But when the plight of his people came up, well, he would really fire up then and really get into it."

Today, William Cooper is a celebrated figure in Israel for trying to deliver a letter of protest to the German embassy in 1938 after Kristallnacht.

Uncle Boydie Turner again.

"He would have read about this in the local papers, what was happening over there with the Nazi Party and the Jewish people, burning their shops and houses, and killing them and all the rest of it. And I think he thought, 'Well, I've got to do something about it.' Nobody else in the world was saying anything. He could see the people in Germany were going through the same sort of thing as what was happening here to his people."

The congress secured vital media coverage, which led to a meeting with Prime Minister Joseph Lyons several days later.

Their demands were again ignored, but Anne Martin says some people did pay attention.

"After the Day of Mourning, there was a growing feeling that there should be some sort of regular event in relation to our mob. And, so, I think it was William Cooper wrote to the National Missionary Council of Australia to seek out their assistance in promoting an annual event. So, it was from around 1940 to '55 the Day of Mourning was held annually on the Sunday before Australia Day. And this was known as Aborigines Day. And I think it in 1955, it was shifted to the first Sunday in July. And it was decided that that should not simply be a protest day, but also a celebration of Aboriginal culture and our survival."

That evolved into what is today known as NAIDOC Week.

The 1967 referendum that led to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being counted in the census is also considered a direct outcome of the 1938 congress.

Another legacy is the establishment of the Australian Congress of First Nations People, commonly referred to as the Congress.

It was launched outside the facade of the Australian Hall in Sydney in 2010.

The Congress's co-chairman is Les Malezer.

"I think, when we look back now 75 years ago, we would be saying the injustices are still the same injustices that people were talking about 75 years ago and that there really has not yet been a meeting of minds between the Australian state and the Aboriginal peoples about what cooperation in this country should be. Sovereignty is definitely high on our priorities, but we have no doubt in our minds, as a Congress, that we are there to implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and that means as a peoples with the full right to self-determination, including autonomy or our own self-governance, and including making decisions about laws and policies that affect us, and the right to have the state provide us with the resources, the financial and the technical assistance that we need to achieve those things."

Anne Martin says the 1938 congress organisers would have mixed feelings if they were around today.

"I think there would be moments of happiness. I think there would be moments of sadness. And I think that, all in all, there would be disappointment in the failure of this country to finally get it right, to get it right, you know?" REPORTER: "How was it so hard to recognise the sovereign rights of Aboriginal people in this country?" MARTIN: "(It's) not a hard thing. But imagine if they didn't do what they did, we may not be where we are now."

For Anne Martin, the 26th of January is a day to mark Aboriginal heroes like William Cooper.

"I think we need to remember...Sorry. We need to remember those that went before us, that fought the hard battles, that created the opportunities for us, and to never, ever forget them, and to, on that day, choose a quiet moment and reflect on what they did for us and thank them once again."

Les Malezer agrees.

And he says it is time to end the Australia Day celebrations on January the 26th.

"We actually call it a Day of Invasion now, and we're particularly offended by people who want to wave the Australian flag in our face on that day. That's a very offensive thing to do to us. We should have a date where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people and Australians generally can say, 'This is a good day for us. This is when we can all go out, have a day of significance, think of who we are, what is our culture here, what are our values here, how do we treat each other, and what makes us different from other countries in the world.' We need a better date."