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Impact of Black Power on Aboriginal Australia

Updated on August 15, 2017

Founded in the mid-1960s the Black Power was a political movement that arose among African-Americans in the United States whose agenda was to bring to fore the racial consciousness. Some of its champions were Robert Williams, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael. AAL (Aborigines Advancement League) first introduced the term in Australia in 1968 when its then leaders, Bruce McGuiness and Bob Maza were invited in Melbourne Dr. Roosevelt Brown, a Caribbean activist and academic to give a talk on ‘Black Power’. This action attracted negative press from the media, which was closely followed by younger activities all over the country, particularly in Sydney and Brisbane. The term came to birth because of frustration and intolerant media towards young indigenous political generation who were growing impatient. Lead by a network of three groups of aboriginal activists based in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. They brought media attention through identifying activism tactics that forced the white media to cover their events. Besides, they mobilized young peers that were sympathizers and were willing to fight for the plight of aboriginal people.

Its leaders formed political and social movement drawing inspiration from not only the likes of Malcolm X, Stokely, and Hamilton among others but also the revolution that was going to third world countries at that time like south Africa, Vietnam, China, the Caribbean. Although the Black Power movement did not dominate domestic politics, as it was the case in America, it helped shape key contemporary Aboriginal leaders and political observers. According to (Neville and Skyes, 1975 p.10), the young taking part in the protests in the streets of Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, Australia, the term ‘Black Power’ had a wide meaning. Skyes, argues that the phrase meant ‘the power generated by the aboriginal people who were after their grievances being heard while doing their best to ensure that these problems were addressed.’ In her definition, She explains that the Black Power was a call for self-determination and community unity and control among the Aboriginal population in Australia The Black Power movement’s message ethnic empowerment, it offered most indigenous Australians a medium to assume responsibilities of managing their own communities.

Consequently, the activists aimed to guide and influence the political, organizational, and psychological structures of the newly formed urban Aboriginal neighbourhoods in the early 70s. Case in point is the 1972 indent where the Black Power activists erected an Aboriginal Tent embassy to exact pressure on parliament seeking for political representation in the Australian government (Kwame, 1967). It is also important to note that there were three particular events in the 1960s that gave rise to young radical groups that seized the Black Power as a tool to propagate the concerns of the political and social - economic improvement for the aboriginal community. For instance, the 1965 Freedom Ride through New South Wales resonated well with the struggles of the Aboriginal community the ride enlighten them that they could stand up to racism with the fear of being subject to penalties. Moreover, the 1966 Gurindji Walkoff set a pattern in a land dispute and land right issues on the lands that were initially owned by the indigenous community. Then, the 1967 referendum that served as a tipping point for these young people when it failed to bring the changes it had promised.

There were various revolutions and movements in the 1960s that were aimed at ending colonial rule in Asia and Africa, not forgetting the struggles the African Americans were passing through in the United States. All these struggles acted as a motivation to the aboriginal community by showing how different ways activism could bring the desired change for these groups. They followed what was happening around these regions keenly with the desire to find out the outcome. It was not long before they started the news they were hoping. For instance, in 1968, reports of Black Power rallies and community programs began to make news headline. The group in Australia began discussing the techniques used in America and how well to incorporate them in their local activism. To proper, understand what was happening around the world, the aboriginal community began to educate themselves on the occurrences around these states of interests by reading in-depth literature materials coming out of countries in Asia, Africa and Native and African Americans in the United States.

In 1968 the group from Redfern, Brisbane and Melbourne met for the first time in Sydney at a conference (FCAATSI), this delegation discovered that they shared the same philosophy of self-determination and economic independence through land rights and more aggressive methods as opposed to the ones used by the previous activists. In 1969, some of these ideas began to materialize, at the Easter conference, which was later known to most as the ‘Aboriginal takeover’ conference, the way Ballarat Courier, one of the dailies would put it on 25th September 1969. The takeover was the first manifestation on the Black Power activities in Australia as it advocated for the Aboriginal community to be in charge of their own affairs.

Taffe (2005) points out that at end of the conference, the FCAATSI members expressed their desire to improving living conditions of Aboriginal people. For instance, one of the speaker at the conference, McGuiness called for equal ‘Aboriginal autonomy ’, the young members of the ‘takeover’ made it clear that they were ready for a change. Moreover, they used the innovation that was available then such as transistor radios to circulated their message across the country and even internationally that helped expand their ideas throughout the nation. However, the 1969 visit by Roosevelt took this ambitious agenda to the next level, as his visit to Melbourne caused controversy, as the media attention from white Australian media showed the fear the white community had the idea of a Black Power Movement in Australia. Besides, it caused discourse within the VAAL (Victorian Aborigines’ Advancement League) the concern was the role of whites in the Black Power Movement.

The 1969 visit of Dr. Brown in Australia did not go down well with the white media. For instance, at a press conference, pastor Doug Nicholls of the Aboriginal church of Christ in Fitzroy argued angrily with telling him that he cannot make statements about the aboriginal community without consulting them first. To his response, Brown said that he had been talking to some though not all of them (Trevor, 1969). Nicholls felt that the idea of Black Power Movement was foreign and according to him; there was no place for Black Power in Australia as it was unrelated to the traditional aboriginal activism and leadership. On the other hand, the Australian media rejected Brown’s ideas. For instance, an Adelaide newspaper termed Brown as “The most unwelcomed, that Australia has had for a long time”. The Daily Mirror wrote, “Get Out, Mr. Brown!”. The media portrayed the Black Power Movement as a violent and dangerous movement that would lead to mass protests and violent outbursts all over Australia. Yet, Brown at no any point had he advocate for violence or any mass action to the Aboriginal community.

In 1971, Redfern Black Power activists created ALS (Aboriginal Legal Service) the first community self-help programs, as at that time most of the Kooris in urban centers had issues with police brutality. Besides, when taken to court, they had no form legal of representation. Their efforts at Oakland Black Panthers acted as a guide to address police brutality. Some other community programs initiated by the group in the early 1970s included medical and legal services across the country. Moreover, the Black Panther Party in Brisbane commissioned a number community programs that were aimed at lifting the living standards of the aboriginal community in the areas around the city (Gary, 1991). These initiatives had a positive impact on the people were used to achieve one of the movement's tenets, ‘self-determination through community control’ using the notion of self-help the Black Power Movement aimed at improving the standards of living of the people in urban centers they resided in. Besides, it is through these initiatives that the Black Power Activist were able to incorporate their ideas with traditional Aboriginal values.

After successfully, initiating the Aboriginal Legal Services, the activists moved focus to on the health issues that were another concern within the members of their community. They found out in their daily routine of the households in these communities that the people were sickly and would rather die than suffer humiliation and be subjected to degrading treatment at the hands of non-aboriginal health providers. The nurses at Sydney hospital did not touch black people and one had to part with $2 at the emergency before being attended to. In 1971, community leaders initiated the AMS (Aboriginal Medical Service Co-operation) to address this concern. The service started off with a number of a volunteer nurse, doctor and a secretary. Through this initiative, the Redfern activists started other programs like, the fresh fruit and vegetable which later on grew into a full-fledged nutritional program.

Later in the year, the group initiated children feeding program, which was later adopted by female members of the movement and turned it into a baby day-care center. In 1972, the movement set up AHC (Aboriginal Housing Companies), with an aim of addressing housing problems that faced aboriginal community living around Sydney. According to (Bellear, 1975), their idea was to improve living conditions that would restore dignity, improve health conditions for the young and old generation as well as upgrade the low education standards, while offering administrative and constructions jobs for those seeking employment. Through these initiatives, the movement demonstrated its commitment to the well being of its people. Other activists from other cities around Australia also followed suit. For instance, the activists in Brisbane advocated for mineral, land and housing rights for its people, exemption from military service, addressing police brutality, realize of Kooris that were in jail.

The Black Power Movement in Australia spurred several political changes in the country. For instance, the Aboriginal Embassy tent protest marked the beginning of a new era. As when the new government took over power, 95 percent of black political leadership took public service positions. The federal government agreed to fund these community-based programs. As the years passed in the 70s, the Aboriginal Movement lost touch with Black Power, although its legacy still lives on. For instance, the notion of community uplifting still lives on through the social services created during the Black Power era in Australia. Besides, it is the same spirit of land rights activism that inspired the 80s activists who eventually won the landmark Land Rights Act ruling of 1992. More so, the most notable influence that the Black Power movement had in Australia is the number of empowered and self-perceptions Aboriginals in the national politics today. The aboriginals are currently a strong political group that attracts attention of the wider public.


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