Taking Civil Rights Seriously

By Chesterman, John | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Taking Civil Rights Seriously


Chesterman, John, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The achievement by Indigenous people of civil fights receives so little exposure in mainstream accounts of Australian history that one could be forgiven for thinking that this did not constitute a significant moment in the nation's history. Aside from occasional (generally inaccurate) public reminiscences about the effects of the 1967 referendum, the gaining of civil fights by Indigenous people has no significant place in Australian popular consciousness. The general histories of Australia that do mention this occurrence do not devote much space to it, and the analysis such as it is tends to characterise the acquisition of civil fights as the delayed rectification of injustice that was motivated by the changed consciousness of politicians, judges and bureaucrats.(2)

Even extended scholarly accounts of Aboriginal history rarely devote more than a few pages to the events that saw Indigenous people, generally from the 1960s onwards, gain civil rights such as the vote, access to social security, equal wages and so on.(3) These historical accounts tend to emphasise certain important political protests, which typically include the following: the Yirrkala petition for land fights in 1963, Charles Perkins's freedom fides of 1965, the 1966 Gurindji wage and land dispute, and the 1967 referendum, before moving to consider the more radical activism of the 1970s such as the establishment of the Aboriginal tent embassy in 1972.

These were all very significant events, and there is now quite a deal of literature that is primarily devoted to examining the myriad ways that Indigenous Australians have fought the injustices that have been imposed on them, the best examples of which are Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus's collection of documents in The Struggle for Aboriginal Rights and Heather Goodall's Invasion to Embassy.(4)

But it is very curious that there exists no written account that details how it is that laws came to be changed throughout the country to see Indigenous people achieve formal legal equality with non-Indigenous Australians. There exist some biographies and autobiographies of key Aboriginal civil rights activists,(5) but these naturally concentrate on the details of the activism and motivations of the books' subjects. At best they only speculate about reasons for governmental change. There are other academic discussions of 1930s civil rights protests, but again the focus is not on the motivations for governmental changes of policy.(6) Those historical accounts that do actually mention most of the significant developments of the 1960s and beyond that saw Indigenous people gain civil rights do so briefly, and do not attempt in any concerted way to establish the reasons behind the relevant governmental policy changes.(7)

Upon absorbing the considerable body of literature referred to above, and its relatively scant attention to the acquisition of civil rights by Indigenous Australians, the student of Australian and Aboriginal political history is left with the message that there were occasional rather than concerted protests on civil rights issues, and that, with a couple of exceptions (most notably the 1967 referendum, whose civil rights relevance is greatly overstated, as I shall discuss shortly), these protests did little to bring about changes to the civil status of Indigenous Australians. Instead, one is led to believe that Indigenous Australians gained civil rights as a result of a slowly developing governmental mindset that gradually and simply came to see the existence of racially discriminatory laws as unjust.

A very different approach is taken when recording the victories of the American civil rights movement, or even the land rights developments here in Australia. The changes in both of these fields are rarely depicted in isolation from the vigorous political activism that preceded political change. In this article I explore the question of why the struggle for Indigenous people's civil rights is so poorly remembered. …

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