Aboriginal elder set the pace for social justice

William Cooper (Eureka Street)

Economists have GDPs. Workers have KPIs. Athletes have PBs. But what about social justice activists? Could there be a Social Justice Measure (SJM) for how much a person cares about justice, asks Michael McVeigh. Source: Eureka Street.

If such a calculation was possible, I wonder if the unit of measurement might be the kilometre, and the measure might be something like, “How far would a person walk in support of a cause that wasn’t theirs, for people they would never meet, in a place they would likely never themselves see?”

Ten kilometres. That was William Cooper’s SJM 80 years ago, on 6 December 1938, when the 77-year-old Yorta Yorta elder walked 10 kilometres from his home in Footscray, in Melbourne’s west, to the city to deliver a letter to the German consulate protesting the attacks on Jews during Kristallnacht nearly a month earlier.

The terrible events of Kristallnacht had provoked newspaper headlines around the world. Dozens of Jews had been killed, Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues had been attacked, and thousands incarcerated in what was a chilling prelude to the Holocaust.

The letter that Cooper and his companions delivered read: “On behalf of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia, we wish to have it registered and on record that we protest wholeheartedly at the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government in Germany. We plead that you would make it known to your government and its military leaders that this cruel persecution of their fellow citizens must be brought to an end.”

The message never reached its intended audience — the protesters turned away at the gate. But their point was made. While there were other protests against the rise of Nazism, Cooper’s was the only known privately organised event.

Cooper was already a bona fide leader among his own people even before this protest. He represented Aboriginal communities in northern Victoria and western NSW who had to survive the drought of the 1920s and Great Depression of the 1930s without any government aid. He was a founding secretary of the Australian Aborigines’ League in 1936, and petitioned the King for Aboriginal representation in parliament. He even started the Australia Day protest movement.

But while these actions are the evidence of a great Australian, it’s the protest on behalf of the Jewish people that establishes the deep conscience that drove Cooper in his campaigning.

– Michael McVeigh is senior editor at Jesuit Communications, publishers of Eureka Street.

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William Cooper set the pace for social justice (Eureka Street

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