On 6 December 1938 —almost 80 years ago— during a warm summer evening in Melbourne one man led a protest in an attempt to protect a discriminated against, marginalised peoples on the other side of the world. A protest was truly ahead of its time in its courage and foresight.
That man was William Cooper, a Yorta Yorta activist, Secretary of the Australian Aborigines League, and by then a 77-year-old elder. Throughout Cooper’s life, he fought for his own Yorta Yorta people’s rights, national Aboriginal rights, and ultimately, fighting for all marginalised people, in late age.
His protest in 1938 was directed towards the German government for their mistreatment of Jewish people. Kristallnacht, a night of government-sponsored harassment and persecution by the Nazis against the country’s Jewish population, had just occurred about a month earlier. It involved widespread rioting by the SA Paramilitary (a wing of the Nazi party) in Jewish neighborhoods in nearly every major German city. This included the smashing of windows, ransacking, physical assault, widespread arson and even murder. Kristallnacht is generally seen as the beginning of the “Final Solution” (a term which referrs to the Nazi’s plan to annihilate the Jewish people) eventuating in up to 6 million Jews being murdered by the Germans and their allies in WWII.
Despite no country breaking off diplomatic relations with Berlin after Kristallnacht, many in the global community were shocked. However, there was only one ‘private’ protest (by citizens) that we know of against Kristallnacht and the German Nazi regime led by Adolf Hitler —this was instigated by William Cooper.
That night William, despite being slower in his older age (he was to pass on just three years later) walked nearly 10 kilometers across town from his home in Melbourne’s West in Footscray to Melbourne’s city with his friends and family and other members of the Australian Aborigines League flanked alongside him. He had planned to deliver a letter to the German counsel that reportedly said:
“On behalf of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia, we wish to have it registered and on record that we protest wholeheartedly at the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government in Germany.
We plead that you would make it known to your government and its military leaders that this cruel persecution of their fellow citizens must be brought to an end.”
When Cooper and his fellow protesters arrived, they were not allowed inside the German Consulate, and the German Counsel-General at the time refused to go outside to meet the mob. Cooper’s letter remained undelivered until 2012 when his 84-year-old grandson Alf “Boydie” Turner and great-grandson Kevin Russell handed over a duplicate letter of protest in a re-enactment (with blessing from the German Embassy).
In Barbra Miller’s book, William Cooper – Gentle Warrior: Standing up for Australian Aborigines and Persecuted Jews. Alf, writes in the foreword, “Grandfather could sadly recognise that same affliction of fear, desperation, bewilderment and a sense of hopelessness which the Jewish people faced in Europe… When many countries around the world would not act, he did.”
William Cooper's stand, in retrospect, was an extraordinary and inspirational one. While it’s common to see Aboriginal people protest for our own rights and against racism and prejudice in all its ugly forms, it is not so common to see Aboriginal people protest for those on the other side of the world, particularly back in 1938. Domestically we as Indigenous people had lots to protest about at the time. The Great Depression had hit and living conditions in Australia were extremely substandard to previous decades with a high level of unemployment. Unlike whites, Aboriginal people at the time could not apply for dole payments, which further entrenched impoverishment, homelessness and hunger. Aboriginal people still didn’t have the right to vote. On top of that, Aboriginal children were being taken from their families and being placed with white families in what became known as “The Stolen Generations”.
Cooper was perhaps the first Aboriginal to lead a protest of this international nature. In the recognition of seeing a group of people discriminated against, an experience he was very familiar with, he fought for what he knew was right.
Despite the protest ultimately failing, with his letter undelivered and the Holocaust and WWII continuing into 1945, many Jews recognise Cooper’s sacrifice and stand for their people’s rights. Israeli people have planted trees in honour of Cooper in the Forest of Martyrs near Jerusalem and there is also a memorial to him at the city's Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. It could be argued that the ordinary Jew knows more about William Cooper that the average Australian, which in some ways is very sad.
William Cooper did many positive things in his life, including actions that lead to the founding of NAIDOC Week which is the major celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander achievement today. However, his actions fighting for the Jewish cause demonstrates just how much a true humanitarian and staunch advocate for human rights he was overall. Unfortunately, and perhaps ironically, the state of Israel itself has recently found itself criticised for various alleged human rights abuses. Nonetheless, the legacy of William Cooper teaches us to always stand up and take action when basic human rights are being broken, which they were undoubtedly were against Jewish citizens in 1938 by the fascist Nazi German state.
Adam Manovic is a Goreng Goreng/Latji Latji man, father, creative producer, and host of 'The Podcast We Had To Have'. He writes, tweets and podcasts about AFL, sport, pop culture and politics. Follow Adam @AdamManovic
National Reconciliation Week promotes Australia's undertold Indigenous histories with this years' theme is #DontKeepHistoryAMystery.