The Legacy of William Cooper

June 17, 2011 Agencies
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Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd spoke last night of the legacy of William Cooper, the Aboriginal who lead a group of indigenous people in a march from Footscray to the German Consulate in Melbourne in1938 to lodge a protest against Kristellnacht…the only protest recorded world-wide.

Delivering his address “Walking together: Celebrating the Legacy of William Cooper” at Melbourne’s Flemington racecourse, Rudd said: “Six months ago, I paid my first visit to Israel as Foreign Minister.  I began the visit at Yad Vashem.

It was not my first visit.

William Cooper

Therese and I have visited Yad Vashem before.

But any visit to this memorial can never be erased from mind or memory.

Nor should they.

They are images of an unspeakable inhumanity.

Among the galleries is the Hall of Names.

Arranged on the walls are the biographies of some two million Jews who perished.

But the additional horror is the space that still remains set aside for the biographies of a further four million.

Six million souls cry out to us.

Their murder is a stain on the soul of our common humanity.

And the Nazi ideology of anti-semitism that took the lives of these 6 million innocents led to a war that claimed a further 60 million lives.

The 20th century witnessed too many crimes against humanity – in Cambodia, Rwanda, Srebrenica and elsewhere.

Our century too, only a decade old, has already witnessed a brand of indiscriminate hatred that has claimed thousands in terrorist attacks in New York and around the world.

And yet, we know that humanity is also capable of listening to better angels.  Capable of overcoming a natural tendency to stand with the herd, impotently on the sidelines.  Capable of taking action.

Capable of confronting hatred.

Never to sit safe on the sidelines when great wrong is being done.

Always seeking to stand up for the weak.

Always seeking to give voice to the voiceless.

And to inspire others to do the same.

Those who stand up to racism, to xenophobia, have the power to prick our consciences, to whisper in our hearts, to inspire action, even long after their lifetime.

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd

We often look abroad for such heroes.

People here tonight may be familiar with the inspiration I draw from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor from a wealthy middle class background and with a promising academic career ahead of him.

But when the Nazis came to power in January 1933, he could not remain silent.

He spoke out – famously proclaiming that the Christian Gospel could not permit the singing of Gregorian chants on Sunday while refusing to stand for the Jews on Monday.

He helped smuggle Jews out of the heart of Germany to Switzerland during the first years of the war.

He then, this man of faith, took the momentous decision to participate in an assassination plot against Hitler.

He was eventually sent to Buchenwald and Hitler personally ordered his hanging in the 3 weeks before the end of the war.

Such was the life and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a man prepared to swim against the tide of public opinion.

But we do not need to look abroad to the finest academics of Europe for inspiration.

We can also look here at home for those who also swam against the tide in defence of a people oppressed.

Tonight we gather together to honour such a man.

A man named William Cooper.

A proud Aboriginal man, a proud member of the Yorta Yorta people.

A man with the courage to confront Nazism; to protest at the German Consulate here in Melbourne the treatment of the Jews.  And also to confront head-on the deep discrimination he faced in his own country.

No vote, no representation in Parliament, no recognition in the census, no education beyond the third grade.

William Cooper could not accept things the way they were: he knew he had to use the means he had to make them better.

As we have heard tonight, he founded the Australian Aborigines’ League: a serious organisation with a serious purpose – an Aboriginal movement to speak for Aboriginal people.

As its Secretary, William Cooper wrote letters to all those of influence.

He wrote to newspaper editors.

He wrote to MPs.

He wrote to Ministers of the Interior.

He wrote to Premiers.

He wrote to Prime Ministers.

He painstakingly compiled a petition of some 2000 signatures.

His message was a powerful one: Australia and its leaders were kidding themselves if they thought our country truly embodied a fair go.

The Aboriginal people of Australia, he argued, deserve the full rights of citizenship.

They deserved equal treatment.

They deserved acknowledgment of the dispossession of their lands.

They deserved a decent education.

They deserved funding to allow them to stand on their own feet and work – a responsibility that ought to rest with the Commonwealth, not the states.

They deserved the vote.

They deserved representation in Parliament; because, William Cooper argued, the country needs leaders who can “think black” as well as white.

In pushing for these fundamental democratic rights, William Cooper used the weapons of peace – words, principles, faith, letters, petitions, protests, an appeal to basic principles.

And like the democrat he was, he argued with a generous spirit.

He believed firmly that when fair people heard what was really going on, what the plight of his people really was, they would make the changes that would give everyone a fair deal.

As Alfred Boydie Turner has already made clear tonight, his grandfather has inspired the generations of Aboriginal leaders who followed him and the Aboriginal community more broadly.

As Alfred wrote in 2003, “My grandfather’s passion, and his sincere hard work, determination and dedication to help change conditions for Aboriginal people are things I will never forget.  It was amazing.  He never gave up and continued to fight to make life better for his people.”

William Cooper inspired and worked closely with his nephew, the great Aboriginal leader, Sir Doug Nicholls.

Sir Doug Nicholls was to be instrumental in the advances of the post-war era – new national bodies to represent the black voice and the success of the 1967 referendum.  He became Governor of South Australia.

And in turn inspired a new generation of leaders.

And so it is possible to trace the thread of William Cooper’s passion, ideas and hard work right from the 1930s through to:

-  the formation of the councils that would be a national black voice: the Australian Aborigines’ Advancement League, and the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders

-  The freedom rides of 1964 and 1965

-  The 1967 referendum.

As Sir Doug Nicholls said in the 1960s “everything comes back to William Cooper … he fired me to follow through”.

Many other great Aboriginal leaders, including many in this room, have followed in the footsteps of William Cooper, over the better part of a century.

And you and Australians more broadly are the richer for building on William Cooper’s legacy.

A vote for all Australians.

Legal equality for all Australians.

The 1967 referendum, ensuring the Commonwealth is able to make laws on behalf of Aboriginal Australians; including Aboriginal Australians in the census.

The Mabo decision.

The Wik decision.

The Bringing Them Home report.

Steps towards reconciliation.

There was still much to do – much that Australia and its leaders still needed to acknowledge and start to make right, particularly in the case of Australia’s stolen generations.

Words matter.

The act of “saying sorry”, if genuinely meant, can help to set relationships right.

Whatever a person’s religious views might be, there is something inherently sacred, something inherently spiritual, something inherently scriptural about human beings truthfully acknowledging that a great wrong had been done.

And, if this acknowledgment is received in the same spirit in which it is given, there is a transformative quality to this most raw of human experiences.

And here I draw on remarks I have made elsewhere in relation to the Apology. We all know from our own lives that it is hard to say that you’re sorry.

Just as we know that it can be equally hard to accept such an apology if great wrongs have been committed.

Revolutions of the soul are difficult to engineer, but when they happen, and when they are based in truth, the change can be both enduring and profound.

And if two peoples can solemnly share such an experience, then the transformational capacity is great indeed.

And so I believe it has been with the Apology of February 2008.

In the Apology, I spoke of this act of reconciliation as a bridge — a bridge that had to be crossed before the practical work of reconciliation could begin.

We all know from our own lives that old wounds cannot simply be hidden.

They need to be acknowledged first, then treated, and only then can we get on with it.

The essential truth is this: how we see each other shapes our behaviours towards each other.

So what progress has been reached in the way in which we see each other?

When our eyes meet in the street, do we acknowledge one another for who we
are?

Do we respect one another for who we are?

Do we see one another’s intrinsic human dignity?

Or do we physically or spiritually still walk to the other side of the street?

On this question, I believe there has been real progress.

I sense a much greater lightness in the bearing of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.

I sense a new confidence in their eyes.

I sense more and more that we are now meeting as equals.

Of course none of this is perfect and none of it is complete.

It’s a hard slog and it’s a long slog.

Attitudes which have taken centuries to form, and too often have become frozen in time, can take quite a while to undo.

But I believe the progress has been real in the emancipation of our spirits and the embrace of a new reality.

The psychological and the sociological impact of this sense of liberation has been almost palpable — although not for all.

That is why this spirit of the Apology, this spirit of reconciliation, must be carefully nurtured into the future.

We want to use our Apology to shine a beacon for indigenous rights everywhere.

At the same time, we have committed ourselves to the hard work of “closing the gap”, work that I believe William Cooper would have petitioned the Government to do to put his people on an equal footing with the rest of the community.

The Government is pursuing a comprehensive agenda to improve the lives of the first Australians, concentrating efforts on six areas with measurable targets.

Closing the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation.

Halving the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under the age of five by 2018.
Ensuring access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities by 2013.

Halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievement for Indigenous children by 2018.

Halving the gap for Indigenous students in Year 12 or equivalent attainment rates by 2020.

And, finally halving the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2018.

I will not go through our successes, our frustrations or failures to date; I could not do it proper justice.

But the determination is there, the inputs are there, and we will measure the outcomes when they are there for the whole community to see.

There is still much to be done to recognise our history and the special place of our Indigenous peoples, and we are beginning on this, we are committed to this.

Firmly establishing the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, which met for the first time last week, as a voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in national policy-making.

Formally recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution – an important step in building a nation united in
acknowledging the unique place of our first peoples.

We are beginning on this, but in the spirit of reconciliation I have every confidence that together we will get it done.

The great Sir Doug Nicholls said to Australians “We want to walk with you.
We don’t want to walk alone.”

With our common determination, we will get it done.

I began my speech in speaking about my visit to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.

It was my privilege to lay a wreath there to pay my respects; and to unveil a plaque to honour the memory of William Cooper.

And mark the establishment at Yad Vashem of The Chair for the Study of Resistance during the Holocaust, in tribute to William Cooper.

I pay tribute to Albert Dadon, the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange, and Yad Vashem for this initiative.

The history of the Jewish people as reflected in the scriptures – especially the Book of Exodus and its promise of freedom and deliverance from oppression – was an inspiration to William Cooper.

He learnt it as a young boy.

He abhorred the oppression of the Jews in Europe.

As an old man, he saw its application to his own people.

He saw injustice perpetrated on the Jews of Europe and protested.

He wanted this protest to draw attention to their suffering, and to that of Aboriginal Australians.

William Cooper’s protest at the German Consulate was the beginning of an extraordinary bond between two ancient peoples – Aboriginal and Jewish.

One that has strengthened over the decades.

Think of Australian Jewish leaders like NSW Chief Justice Jim Spigelman and the late Ron Castan QC who fought for Aboriginal rights.

Consider how it continues today with Albert Dadon’s sponsorship of the William Cooper Chair at Yad Vashem.

And how it will continue in this city with the work the Reagan Milstein Foundation plans to support young indigenous footballers (soccer players).

In the spirit of William Cooper, we look to address injustice abroad as we also address injustice at home.

Across the Arab world we are seeing citizens of the character of William Cooper express their desire for the democratic freedoms citizens deserve.

In Tunisia, one man, Tarek Muhammed Bouazizi, a street vendor, set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his wares and his treatment by officials.

He set alight a series of revolutions that have rocked the Arab world. Australia continues to provide assistance to Tunisia, a country in
transition.

In Egypt, the bravery of protesters of Tahrir Square eventually ousted a President who had ruled for three decades.  Here too, Australia is helping, providing assistance to enhance food security and agricultural productivity assistance, boost youth job creation and clear landmines to enable economic development.

In Libya, where Australia and the international community have been united in our call to protect civilian life from the Qaddafi regime, for Qaddafi to go, and for democratic transition to occur.  Australia is one of the top four donors to address Libya’s humanitarian needs.

In Syria, democratic protests continue, despite deplorable violence and intimidation by the authorities.

I have written to the United Nations Secretary General and United Nations Security Council President to consider referring the actions of President Assad and his Government to the International Criminal Court.

In all these theatres, Australia stands ready to assist countries in democratic transition.

William Cooper is becoming a giant of Australian history.

It is right that we make his story more widely known through events like tonight.

William Cooper had the courage to confront his fellow Australians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – with injustice and rouse them to action.

He had the courage to confront German authorities with their injustice.

He had the courage to confront Australia’s leaders with their injustice.

In 1938 he wrote this to Prime Minister Joseph Lyons:

“Will you, by your apathy tacitly admit that you don’t care, and thus assume the guilt of your fathers?  Are you prepared to see a race of people, without whom the centre and north of Australia can never be brought under human control, die and become extinct while you stand by and do nothing?

Or are you prepared to admit that, since the Creator said in his Word that all men are of “one blood”, we are humans with feelings like yourselves in the eyes of Almighty God, that we have joys and our sorrows, our likes and our dislikes, that we can feel pain, degradation, and humiliation just as you do? If you admit that, will you, like true men do your bit to see a great injustice at least mollified by agitating for us to get a fair deal before it is too late?”

William Cooper’s story – his clear words, his conviction, and his courage – resounds down the decades.

It speaks to governments, to white Australians, to black Australians

He speaks to us all.

He speaks to the future Australia we create together.

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