"We ask for ordinary citizen rights, and full equality with white Australians."
These were the words once spoken by renowned orator and political organiser Jack Patten.
He had a natural ability to engage his audiences, speaking passionately about the rights of Indigenous peoples. he refined his public speaking skills by speaking every Sunday at the Sunday domain, fast earning himself a reputation as a man to be listened to, and respected.
In 1937 he co-founded the Aborigines’ Progressive Association with Bill Ferguson, becoming its first president. That same year he hitch-hiked around the state collecting affidavits from Aboriginal people about living conditions on reserves, which were managed by the Aborigines Protection Board.
This work helped to inform his historic speech, delivered at the 1938 Day of Mourning protest.
Day of Mourning protest speech 1938"On this day the white people are rejoicing, but we, as Aborigines, have no reason to rejoice on Australia’s 150th birthday. Our purpose in meeting today is to bring home to the white people of Australia the frightful conditions in which the native Aborigines of this continent live. This land belonged to our forefathers 150 years ago, but today we are pushed further and further into the background. The Aborigines Progressive Association has been formed to put before the white people the fact that Aborigines throughout Australia are literally being starved to death. We refuse to be pushed into the background. We have decided to make ourselves heard. White men pretend that the Australian Aboriginal is a low type, who cannot be bettered. Our reply to that is, ‘Give us the chance!’ We do not wish to be left behind in Australia’s march to progress. We ask for full citizen rights including old-age pensions, maternity bonus, relief work when unemployed, and the right to a full Australian education for our children. We do not wish to be herded like cattle and treated as a special class. As regards the Aborigines Protection Board of NSW, white people in the cities do not realise the terrible conditions of slavery under which our people live in the outback districts. I have unanswerable evidence that women of our race are forced to work in return for rations, without other payment. Is this not slavery? Do white Australians realise that there is actual slavery in this fair, progressive Commonwealth? Yet such is the case. We are looking in vain for white people to help us by charity. We must do something ourselves to draw public attention to our plight. This is why this Conference is held, to discuss ways and means of arousing the conscience of White Australians, who have us in their power, but have hitherto refused to help us. Our children on the Government stations are badly fed and poorly educated. The result is that when they go out into life, they feel inferior to white people. This is not a matter of race, this is a matter of education and opportunity. This is why we ask for a better education and better opportunity for our people. We say that it is a disgrace to Australia’s name that our people should be handicapped by undernourishment and poor education, and then blamed for being backward. We do not trust the present Aborigines Protection Board and that why we ask for its abolition. Incompetent teachers are provided on the Government stations. This is the greatest handicap put on us. We have had 150 years of white men looking after us, and the result is, our people are being exterminated. The reason why this Conference is called today is that the Aborigines themselves may discuss their problems and try to bring before the notice of the public and of parliament what our grievance is, and how it may be remedied.
We ask for ordinary citizen rights, and full equality with white Australians."
Also in 1938, Patten founded the first Aboriginal newspaper, The Australian Abo Call, which contained stories from across the country aimed at raising awareness and gaining public support for Aboriginal rights.
In 1939 Patten was instrumental in organising the Cummeragunja Walk Off, for which he was arrested and charged with ‘inciting Aborigines’. Earlier that year, Patten had been involved in campaigning for Aboriginal people to be able to enlist in the military (without needing to lie about their identity, as many had done previously). The ban was overturned later that year and Patten enlisted in the Australian Army in December of 1939. He went on to serve in Palestine and Egypt, having passed on the Presidency of the APA to his brother-in-law William Onus.
The APA has split into two distinct groups after the Walk-Off, but before Jack left to serve overseas he called for unity and helped to see the APA restored into one body, led in partnership between William Onus and William Ferguson.
He was discharged from military service in 1942, being declared medically unfit for service due to shrapnel in his knee. Upon his return he took up work at Tennant Creek, NT, and in Cape York, Qld.
In 1946 he moved to Melbourne and survived on a war pension, where he remained active in Aboriginal politics, working to ensure Aboriginal people had sufficient representation when appearing in court, and campaigning against the British atomic testing in Maralinga, SA.
Patten died at the age of 52 from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. He was survived by his wife and their seven children.
His impacts on Aboriginal activists, campaigners, and advocates are felt to this day, and he is remembered as an founder of modern Aboriginal political actions.