Remembering 1938 'Day of Mourning' declaration

People at the Day of Mourning protest, 1938. Source: SBS

As Australia Day celebrations get underway around the country, it will also be the 75th anniversary of the declaration of January 26 as a Day of Mourning.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

In 1938 a congress of Aboriginal people met in Sydney to demand equality.

Led by William Cooper, Jack Patten and William Ferguson, they inspired generations of activists to fight for their people's rights.

Stefan Armbruster reports on the historic gathering and the calls for an end to celebrations marking the arrival of the first fleet in 1788.

"Things were pretty hard and they had to put up with a lot of racism. I remember the picture show came and it was Aboriginals to the left and whites to the right, in hotels Aboriginal people drank on one side and the whites on the other, very close to apartheid."

Uncle Boydie Turner, a Yorta Yorta man, describing life for Aboriginal people in 1930s.

"I was taken to be enrolled in a white school, all white school, knocked on the door and the teachers said, "Yes, what do you want?". And my mother said we just came to enrol the boys in the school here. He said, "No we don't want you hear", and slammed the door in our face."

It was at this time on 26 January, 1938 Australia celebrated the 150th anniversary of the arrival first fleet.

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

Sydney was at a standstill as a re-enactment took place.

But across town a gathering of Aboriginal people wasn't celebrating.

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

"On the national day of mourning and the congress, they laid the foundation and I think when the manifesto opened with the declaration, this festival of 150 years of so-called progress in Australia commemorates also 150 years of misery and degradation imposed on the traditional inhabitants by the white invaders of this country. Those words, when they were said, must have been so powerful."

That's Anne Martin, co-chair of the national Naidoc committee.

Prevented from marching during Sydney's Australia Day celebrations, late in the afternoon the Aboriginal protest led by William Cooper, William Ferguson and Jack Patten made its way to Australian Hall in Elizabeth Street.

Speeches included a 10-point plan demanding equal rights as citizens and this declaration.

"We, representing the Aborigines of Australia assembled at the Australian Hall in Sydney on 26 Jan 1938, this being the 150th anniversary of the white man's seizure of our country hereby make protest against the callous treatment of the what man of our people 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, 150 years. 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 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, didn't say much but when the plight of his people came up he would really fire up then and 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.

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

The Congress secured vital media coverage, which led to a meeting with the 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 feeling there should be a regular event in relation to our mob. And 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 1955 that the Day of Mourning was held annually on the Sunday before Australia Day, this was known as Aborigines Day and in 1955 I think it was shifted to the first Sunday in July. It was decided that should not be a protest day, you know move away from the protest of the national day of mourning but also a celebration of aboriginal culture and our survival."

That evolved into what is today known as Naidoc Week.

The 1967 referendum that saw Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people counted in the Census is also considered a direct outcome of 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.

Congress co-chair 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 were committed 75 years ago and 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 doubts in our minds, as a congress, that we are there to implement the declaration of rights of indigenous people, and that means as a peoples with the full right to self-determination, including autonomy and our own self-governance, and including making decisions about laws and policies that affect us, and the right to have the state provide the resources, the financial and the technical, assistance we need to achieve those things."

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

"I think there would be moments of happiness, I think there would be moments of sadness. And I think all in all there would be disappointment in the failure of this country to finally get it right, to get it right, you know. How is it so hard to recognise the sovereign rights of Aboriginal people in this country? 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, (VOICE GETS EMOTIONAL) sorry, I think 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 what they did for us and thank them."

Les Malezer agrees and says it's time to end the Australia Day celebrations on January 26.

"We 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, go out, have a day of significance, think of who we are, what are our values here, what makes us different from other countries, in the world. We need a better date."

Source SBS

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