• Claire Avisar

The Australian Civil Rights Movement


Maybe it is the image of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, standing at the Lincoln Memorial about to address the March on Washington in a speech that would become his most famous. Or perhaps it might be names like Recy Taylor or Rosa Parks, just two of the women remembered for bravely sharing their stories of discrimination and violence with the world. When civil rights are referenced in conversation or in political discourse, it is hard not to associate the term with the efforts of the African American civil rights movement, and images and stories of the men and women who dedicated their lives to establishing equal rights. However, for very few does Australia’s history of settler-Indigenous relations evoke the same mental image. Despite its relative lack of representation in comparison to the civil rights era in the United States, during the same period as the African American movement, Indigenous peoples in Australia were also organizing at the grassroots level.

In a global community reeling from the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust the 20th century inaugurated a period of political development grounded in pushing the inalienability of human and civil rights. As a part of this movement, disenfranchised groups in the United States, those part of the apartheid system in South Africa, as well as Indigenous peoples in the Southern Hemisphere started to make formal rights demands, and pressuring their respective governments for political representation and freedom from discrimination. Although the 1950s and 1960s did not mark the beginning of the political struggle between settler-colonial society and the Indigenous population in Australia, they represent a turning point in the use of legal channels to enact social change. Understanding this history is, nevertheless, crucial to comprehending the forms of rights claims and constitutional reforms sought by Indigenous peoples in Australian society today.

Just as in the United States, voting rights and equal representation before the law formed the basis for organization and petitions to the government for groups in Australia. While many Australians recognize 1967 as the point at which Indigenous populations received this right, communities in Victoria, New South Wales, and Tasmania were not legally able to vote until the first Commonwealth Parliament was elected in 1901 and consolidated state legislation under a unified legal system (1). However, soon after the amendment, the 1902 Franchise Act effectively stripped all Indigenous peoples of their voter privileges, with section 41 excluding all “aboriginal natives of Australia, Africa, Asia, or the Islands of the Pacific” (2).

Met with a similar experiences to Indigenous communities across Canada, assimilation policies forcibly removed upwards of 33% of all Indigenous children from their parents with the goal of stripping them of their identities (3). As prejudice was now codified in the nation’s constitution, these values justified the marginalization and discrimination of Indigenous peoples, and fostered a culture in which men sought sexual relationship with Indigenous women, yet failed to acknowledge them as equal members of society (4). Faced with the wealth disparities, violence, and racial discrimination that carried through the 21st century from the colonial period, the treatment of Indigenous peoples under the Australian federal government drew global attention, earning criticism from groups such as the London Anti-Slavery Society (5).

Greatly influenced by the work of civil rights groups in the United States, yet framing their indignation through traditional avenues such as land claims, organizations such as the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement were formed in order to publicize social and civil inequities (6). In particular, Charlie Perkins, along with 32 other university students, developed the Australian Freedom Rides campaign. The riders trekked from Wellington to the towns of Boggabilla and Bowravile, before returning to Sydney. The rides took place in 1965 and by1967 a constitutional referendum took place in which 90% of Australians advocated for the inclusion Indigenous populations in the voting processes; these successes are largely attributed to the awareness created by Perkins and his colleagues (7).

However seemingly similar to the freedoms rides in places like Alabama, the civil rights movement of the Indigenous in Australia differed with respect to the representation sought by its members. Making claims to territory and rights using bark paintings to be recognized as a title deed, the Yirrkala petition framed the Indigenous plight not solely as an effort towards equal citizenry, but also as having unique rights based upon their authenticity as Indigenous to Australian land (8).

While 1967 marked the end of the legal exclusion of Indigenous peoples from representative forms of government, the battle is still ongoing. Although far removed from the days of the freedom rides, the movement is still pushing for further constitutional reform that would publicly acknowledge the historic battle between Indigenous peoples and the state.

  1. "How Aboriginal activism brought about change." Australian Geographic. Accessed January 31, 2018. http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/history-culture/2011/07/how-aboriginal-activism-brought-about-change.

  2. "Franchise Act." Franchise Act | National Museum of Australia. Accessed January 31, 2018. http://www.nma.gov.au/online_features/defining_moments/featured/commonwealth_franchise_act.

  3. "Freedom Ride: A journey to fight racial discrimination." Australian Geographic. Accessed January 31, 2018. http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/history-culture/2010/05/freedom-ride-a-journey-to-fight-racial-discrimination/.

  4. Ibid

  5. "The Indigenous civil rights movement in Australia." Australians Together. Accessed January 31, 2018. https://www.australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/civil-rights-movement/.

  6. "How Aboriginal activism brought about change." Australian Geographic. Accessed January 31, 2018. http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/history-culture/2011/07/how-aboriginal-activism-brought-about-change.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid.

References

"Franchise Act." Franchise Act | National Museum of Australia. Accessed January 31, 2018. http://www.nma.gov.au/online_features/defining_moments/featured/commonwealth_franchise_act.

"Freedom Ride: A journey to fight racial discrimination." Australian Geographic. Accessed January 31, 2018. http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/history-culture/2010/05/freedom-ride-a-journey-to-fight-racial-discrimination/.

"How Aboriginal activism brought about change." Australian Geographic. Accessed January 31, 2018. http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/history-culture/2011/07/how-aboriginal-activism-brought-about-change.

"The Indigenous civil rights movement in Australia." Australians Together. Accessed January 31, 2018. https://www.australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/civil-rights-movement/.

"The Stolen Generations." Australians Together. Accessed January 31, 2018. https://www.australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/stolen-generations.


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