William Cooper was a mobilising force in the early fight for Indigenous rights. His measured political lobbying in the 1930s was an important precursor to the more radical rights movement that followed. Cooper believed that Aboriginal people should be represented in Parliament, an outcome he continued to pursue despite disheartening results in his lifetime.
Born in 1861, Cooper spent most of his life near the junction of the Murray and Goulburn rivers, in the Yorta Yorta nation of his mother. He lived on missions and state-funded reserves in New South Wales and Victoria, including the Maloga Mission, where he met his first wife, and the Cummeragunja Mission, where he moved shortly after its establishment in 1886.
Typical of the government-run reserves of the day, the freedoms of the Aboriginal families who lived at Cummeragunja were severely restricted. However they did enjoy a period of relative prosperity, being allowed to farm their own allotments. Cooper married a woman named Agnes after the death of his first wife and lived with her and their six children.
From 1908, the independence afforded to Cummeragunja residents was gradually eroded. The New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board cut investment and repossessed farmland. Defiantly, Cooper, along with several other men, confronted the reserve's Board-appointed manager in protest of these policies. As a result he was expelled from Cummeragunja.
Cooper began to balance farm work with politics, spurred on by the poverty and inequality that surrounded him. He joined the Australian Workers' Union and represented Aboriginal workers in western New South Wales and central Victoria. He championed remote communities that were denied aid during drought and the Depression. He learnt basic literacy. He also briefly returned to Cummeragunja.
In 1933, Cooper relocated to Melbourne with his third wife Sarah. While ostensibly a move to allow Cooper to claim the old age pension – denied to those living on Aboriginal reserves - a quiet retirement was not on the cards for the indefatigable 70-year-old. Cooper became a prominent figure among Melbourne's small Aboriginal community, which, from its base in the suburb of Fitzroy, was to emerge as a political force in the fight for Aboriginal rights in Victoria.
One of Cooper's most famous campaigns was a petition to King George V. Its primary demand was for the right to propose a Member of Parliament who directly represented Aboriginal people. Between 1934 and 1937, Cooper obtained 1,814 signatures from around the country. Unfortunately, on a constitutional technicality, the Commonwealth Government refused to pass the petition to the King.
In 1936, Cooper, along with others, established the Australian Aborigines' League. In doing so he formalised the actions of a group of ex-Cummeragunja residents who had been working together for several years. It was the first advocacy organisation with an entirely Aboriginal membership and the predecessor to the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League, into which it was eventually incorporated.
With Cooper as secretary, the League's approach was to use existing democratic channels to achieve positive outcomes for Indigenous Australians. Although success was limited, they did influence a decision by the Commonwealth Government in 1937 to hold a conference to discuss the formation of a national policy on Aborigines.
Cooper held an 'Aboriginal Day of Mourning' on 26 January 1938. It coincided the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet and raised awareness of what this meant for the Indigenous population. The day evolved into a National Aborigines Day, or Aboriginal Sunday, first observed in 1940 on the weekend before Australia Day. Today, the celebrations of NAIDOC Week have their roots in Cooper's original day of remembrance.
Cooper closely followed civil rights movements around the world, including those of the Maoris of New Zealand and Native Americans. He often drew comparisons when campaigning for change in Australia. His compassion extended beyond the suffering of his own people. In 1938, he lodged a personal protest against the treatment of European Jews in Nazi Germany, walking from his home in Footscray to the German consulate in South Melbourne. It was one of the first protests in the world against the actions of the Nazis. In 2010, this was formally acknowledged with an education memorial, established in Cooper's honour at a Jerusalem museum.
William Cooper died in 1941, years before much that he fought for was finally achieved. But Cooper's Australian Aborigines' League, and the publicity it generated, marked an important turning point. Cooper inspired and mentored a new generation of leaders – people like Sir Doug Nicholls - who would go on to break down barriers. Described as a man ahead of his time, Cooper's unwavering belief that Aboriginal people could and should control their own destiny would become a powerful motivator as the 20th century progressed.
Reviewed 29 September 2019