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The two worlds of postwar Australia

The majority

In the period following the Second World War, the vast majority of Australians lived in a world of houses serviced with water and power, and where laws ensured social order. People on the whole had jobs to do and enough to eat and, if they didn't, government benefits and services helped them through hard times. Mostly they lived in or near cities.

They were proud to be subjects of the Queen and believed that they lived in a fair and just democracy, unhindered by problems such as class distinctions in Britain, or racial tensions in the United States or South Africa.

Black and white photo of a group of people cheering and raising their drinks in celebration.
Victory celebration, Tranby College, Sydney, June 1967

The Indigenous minority

The other world was inhabited by people whose ancestors had lived in Australia for more than 65,000 years. By the 1950s, having lost land and livelihood, many were paupers, living in 'humpies' on the edge of town rubbish dumps and earning occasional money as fruit pickers. They were not eligible for the dole or other state benefits which whites received.

State laws told Indigenous people where they were allowed to live, where they could and couldn't move and who they could marry. They were often not the legal guardians of their own children. Local policemen controlled their earnings, doling out small amounts in pocket money according to their individual judgement or whim.

In Queensland the law even allowed mission managers to open and censor mission-dwellers' letters.

Bridging the gulf

There was little contact between the inhabitants of these two worlds. The majority either didn't know or didn't care about the sufferings of the minority. However, events in the late 1950s brought the sufferings of the few into the living rooms of the many.

Some were both aware of Aboriginal disadvantage and doing what they could to address it. They recognised the potential to form a grass-roots reform movement to bring the rights and protection of Australian citizenship to the dispossessed Aboriginal population.

Civil rights activism

From the late 1950s, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists came together to:

  • campaign for equal rights for Indigenous Australians, and
  • to bring about the repeal of laws which deprived Indigenous Australians of civil liberties.

'Fights for Civil Rights' is an account of seven key civil rights campaigns and the activists and organisations that participated in them. It begins with the Warburton Ranges campaign in the 1950s.

The Fights for Civil Rights

Warburton Ranges controversy, 1957 The Commonwealth Government was testing nuclear weapons and firing rockets in the Central Desert, compromising Indigenous peoples’ health.
Referendum, 1957–67 After 10 years of campaigning, a referendum was held to change the Australian Constitution and recognise Aboriginal people as full Australian citizens.
Albert Namatjira and citizenship, 1958–59 Albert Namatjira, famed Arrente artist, was not classified as a ward of the state by 1957 legislation and so became an Australian citizen. This prevented him from associating with relatives who were not citizens.
Freedom Ride, 1965 In February 1965 a group of University of Sydney students organised a bus tour of western and coastal New South Wales towns. Their purpose was to draw public attention to the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing.
Social Service benefits, 1954–64 The old age pension and unemployment benefits were not available to Aboriginal Australians in the 1950s. The Social Services Act was amended in 1959 to include them but many impediments remained.
Equal wages, 1963–66 For white civil rights activists in the 1960s equal pay was the basic marker of acceptance and social inclusion in Australian society. However, the achievement of equal wages in the pastoral industry turned out to be a hollow victory for many.
Queensland Trust Fund, 1969–72 Aboriginal Queenslanders who were ‘under the Act’ did not have the right to spend or manage their own money. Their earnings were paid into a trust fund, and doled out to them by the local policeman, as he saw fit. The campaign against the Trust Fund drew attention to this injustice.

Explore more on Collaborating for Indigenous Rights 1957–1973

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