Joe McGinness was from the Kungarakany people of the Northern Territory on his mother’s side, and of Irish heritage on his father’s side. As a child he was made a ward of the state.
He later served in Borneo during the Second World War, then worked on the wharves in Queensland, joining the Waterside Workers’ Federation. His trade union experience served him well in his role as president of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) from 1961 to 1977.
As president, McGinness (also spelt McGinniss) travelled around northern Queensland and the Northern Territory campaigning on civil rights issues. His tuckerbox was an essential item on bush trips, and it still bears the marks of the tins it carried.