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The organisations mentioned here are of different kinds. A number of them were affiliated to the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

There were 68 such organisations at the height of FCAATSI's powers. Some were Aboriginal community organisations, others were unions and religious and political organisations.

The Council of Aboriginal Affairs was a government body and the Anti-Slavery Society had its headquarters in London.

The Aboriginal Legal Service had its origins in the police harassment of Aborigines living in Redfern in the late 1960s. Tired of what they saw to be a campaign of victimisation and intimidation, a group of young activists including Paul Coe, Isobel Coe, Gary Williams, Gary Foley and Tony Coorey instituted a surveillance operation against the local police force.

After trailing police and making notes on their behaviour towards the local Aboriginal community, this group had soon amassed a vast amount of incriminating evidence.

The notes they had made were enough to persuade Hal Wootten, Dean of Law at the University of New South Wales, to assist them in setting up their own shopfront Aboriginal Legal Service of New South Wales.

This organisation, established in October 1970, was the first in that state to be conceived, established and controlled by Aborigines since the Aborigines' Progressive Association in 1937.

The success of the New South Wales Aboriginal Legal Service soon inspired other Indigenous Australians to tackle their own community policing and legal problems. The South Australian Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement was established in November 1971.

In Victoria, activists from the Aborigines' Advancement League helped to establish the Victorian Legal Service in June 1972 with assistance from law academics at Monash University. This replaced the ad hoc representation that the Aborigines' Advancement League had often arranged for local Aboriginal people appearing before court.

Queensland and Western Australia also established voluntary services in 1972, and there was an Aboriginal Legal Service in every State and Territory by 1974.

Although the legal services have worked closely with sympathetic white professionals, they were founded upon the principle of Indigenous self-determination and, by extension, as part of a continuing resistance to dispossession.

Indigenous Australians have typically had more health problems than non-Indigenous Australians.

In the early 1970s, Aboriginal parents could expect their children to have a mortality rate 20 times the national average — the average Indigenous child was malnourished and suffered problems of substandard physical and mental development. Adults faced similarly appalling standards of health.

In mid-1971, Gordon Briscoe, Shirley (Mum Shirl) Smith, Lyn Craigie, Norma Williams, Sol Bellear, Roberta Sykes and other community activists were instrumental in the formation of the first Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, New South Wales, in an attempt to help counteract these problems within their own community.

They had reacted with disillusionment and outrage to the poor treatment of the Indigenous community in Redfern by the mainstream health services, but were inspired by the experience of the Aboriginal Legal Service, which had opened in Redfern in June 1970.

The successful establishment of the Aboriginal Legal Service had convinced these activists that it was possible to provide an independent, free and professional service to the Indigenous community with minimal government funding or resources.

Moreover, these activists had seen how the Aboriginal Legal Service had been able to garner the support of sympathetic white professionals while retaining Indigenous control and direction of the organisation.

In the case of the Aboriginal Medical Service, initial assistance was received from Dr Ferry Grunseit and Dr Fred Hollows. From those small beginnings grew a network of more than 60 Aboriginal Health Services across Australia which, by the 1990s, were being funded by the federal government through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).

The Aboriginal Progress Association was formed in August 1964 to promote Aboriginal progress and welfare. One of its foundation members, Laurie Bryan, felt that the South Australian Aborigines' Advancement League was dominated by non-Aboriginal members and that a new body was needed to give developing Aboriginal political activists a voice.

He resigned from the league and gathered together a number of well-educated Aboriginal activists such as John Moriarty, Winnie Branson, Vince Copley and Malcolm Cooper to form the Progress Association. It was proposed that only people of Aboriginal descent would have full voting rights and Malcolm Cooper became the first president.

One of the achievements of this organisation was its work in Aboriginal education. An Aboriginal Education Foundation was formed which helped Aboriginal secondary and tertiary students.

Gladys Elphick, a respected elder stateswoman, was unhappy with the fact that the Progress Association was dominated by men and that the two non-Aboriginal members, Laurie Bryan and Eugene Lumbers, were particularly dominant.

She believed that Aboriginal women would have more success at reaching the desperately poor Aboriginal people in Adelaide. Gladys did, however, recognise the achievement of the Aboriginal Education Foundation and its value in bringing together women such as Lois O'Donoghue, Margaret Lawrie and Maude Tongerie who were becoming politically active.

The Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship (AAF) came into being in 1956 as a result of discussions between Pearl Gibbs and Faith Bandler. Gibbs recognised that white support was necessary in the work to reform the New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board and to improve conditions of life for Aboriginal people.

The AAF was one of the new postwar organisations working for social and legislative reforms which counted both Aborigines and non-Aborigines among its active members.

A diverse membership developed which included members of the Communist Party of Australia, artists, writers, members of the Jewish community and members of Christian churches. It was a founding member of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement and sent representatives to the initial 1958 meeting in Adelaide.

Public attention first turned to the AAF when it held a meeting in the Sydney Town Hall on 29 April 1957. At that meeting, prominent Aboriginal Australians such as Doug Nicholls, Harold Blair, Bert Groves and Bill Onus spoke.

A petition was launched to call for a referendum to amend the Australian Constitution so that the Commonwealth government could have direct responsibility for Aboriginal affairs.

Bert Groves was the inaugural president of the AAF and he represented the organisation at the Adelaide meeting where the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement came into being.

The organisation ran campaigns to remove restrictions in New South Wales laws on Aboriginal use of alcohol, to oppose racial discrimination in schools, pools and picture theatres in New South Wales country towns, and to improve the quality of Aboriginal education.

The AAF disbanded in 1969 when Aboriginal people were moving to establish their own organisations.

Logo for CHURINGA, A.P.A. - click to view larger image
Churinga, journal of the Aborigines Progressive Association, March 1966

The Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), an all-Aboriginal body, was formed in 1937 in New South Wales with Jack Patten as president and Bill Ferguson as secretary.

The APA, together with William Cooper, was responsible for organising the Day of Mourning protest on Australia Day in 1938.

The APA had three aims: full citizenship rights for Aboriginal Australians, Aboriginal representation in parliament and abolition of the New South Wales Aborigines' Protection Board.

The APA operated until 1944. After a period of dormancy, it was revived in 1963 by hard-working, seasoned campaigners Bert Groves and Pearl Gibbs. They were fired up by their passion to improve the conditions of life for Aboriginal Australians, and were unhappy that the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship was putting legislative reform before land.

In 1966 the New South Wales Government set up a Parliamentary Committee to investigate Aboriginal welfare in New South Wales. The APA was asked to make a submission. Some prominent active members of the reformed APA were Joyce Clague, Dulcie Flower, Harriet Ellis, Ray Peckham, Chicka Dixon and Ken Brindle.

ABSCHOL logo with the text: SCHOLARSHIPS FOR ABORIGINALS. - click to view larger image
Abschol appeal brochure, 1967

Abschol was initially set up, as its name suggests, to support university scholarships for Aboriginal students. It was a committee of the National Union of Australian University Students.

When the committee realised that the lack of applications was due to lack of suitably qualified students, it began considering other ways of encouraging Aboriginal tertiary education.

Through the 1960s Abschol affiliated with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI).

It broadened its concerns, becoming a political pressure group concerned particularly about the issue of land rights. For instance, working parties helped erect buildings for the Gurindji at Wattie Creek.

During winter 1968, a 24-hour national vigil was organised by Abschol for all capital cities in order to draw attention to the federal government's failure to negotiate on the issue of land rights. Abschol was a member of FCAATSI and in the early 1970s the Abschol representative, Neville Perkins, was on the FCAATSI executive.

In 1972 Abschol was a strong supporter of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

Abschol did not lose sight of its original goal, and assisted a number of Aboriginal students in their journeys through university.

The aim of the Anti-Slavery Society has always been the abolition of all forms of slavery throughout the world. The link between slavery and the status of colonised peoples was acknowledged when the society merged with the Aborigines' Protection Society in 1909.

Organisations and individuals in Australia working for Aboriginal rights informed the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines' Protection Society of civil rights infringements and abuses of power. The society lobbied Australian governments on these matters.

In 1955 Lady Jessie Street, campaigner for women's rights and more broadly for human rights, was invited to join the committee of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines' Protection Society.

In 1957 Street, who was living in London at the time, came back to Australia and spent two months travelling, gathering information for the society. This led, indirectly, to the formation of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, and to campaigns for greater federal responsibility for Aboriginal affairs.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s activists continued to draw on the support of the Anti-Slavery society in their campaigns. The society still exists today as Anti-Slavery International.

Black and white photo of a group of men in discussion over a table laden with official documents. - click to view larger image
Australian Aborigines' League

The Australian Aborigines' League grew out of discussions held by William Cooper, a highly regarded Cummeragunga man who came to Melbourne during the Depression when forced to leave his home if he wanted to be eligible for the old age pension.

Members included Margaret Tucker, Caleb and Anna Morgan and Shadrach James. An early initiative was William Cooper's initiative to petition King George V for representation in parliament for Aboriginal Australians.

In 1938 the league joined forces with the New South Wales Aborigines Progressive Association to stage a Day of Mourning on Australia Day, 26 January, the sesqui-centenary of what Cooper described as 'the whiteman's seizure of our country'.

This dignified alternative to the celebrations drew attention to the callous treatment of Indigenous Australians and asked for full citizens' rights and equality.

Following Cooper's death in 1941 the league was less active, but it was revived by Doug Nicholls and Eric and Bill Onus after the Second World War. In the 1960s it became the Aboriginal branch of the Aborigines Advancement League (Victoria).

The league's first test case concerned the sacking of a taxi driver on racial grounds. With the support of the local Trades and Labour Council, the company was black banned and the driver reinstated as a result.

Gladys O'Shane and Joe McGinness were, respectively, the inaugural president and secretary of the league. At this time Cairns was a unionised port town with more than 1000 men working on the wharves, including Aborigines and Islanders.

The Cairns Trades and Labour Council, the Union of Australian Women and the Waterside Workers' Federation, of which McGinness was a member, provided both moral and financial support to the league.

The league was formed in 1960 and soon after affiliated with the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA).

With the election of Joe McGinness as president of FCAA in 1961, it played an active role in the federal movement. It frequently initiated new campaigns such as the campaign against the Queensland Aboriginal acts and the tuberculosis allowance campaign.

Unlike most of the other multi-racial activist organisations operating at this time, the membership was predominantly Aboriginal and Islander members. The Cairns league played a significant part in exposing police violence in Mareeba and Mossman and in campaigns against the Queensland Aboriginal acts.

From the 1920s, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was influenced by the Comintern's (Third Communist International) view of racial minorities and what their attitude to such people should be.

Tom Wright's New Deal for Aborigines, published in 1939, argued that the labour movement needed to recognise and address the neglect of Aboriginal Australians by governments. The party provided vital support for the 1946 Pilbara strike.

Key contributions in the struggle for Aboriginal rights were made by Shirley Andrews, Barry Christophers, Len Fox, Pauline Pickford, Gladys O'Shane, Kath Walker, Faith Bandler and others who were, or had been, members of the Communist Party of Australia. It is a mistake, however, to think that these activists followed a particular party line.

There is plenty of evidence to show that those CPA members who were deeply involved in assisting Aboriginal people in their campaigns for justice were driven less by ideology than by a strong sense of moral responsibility to a dispossessed people.

Nevertheless, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders was, through much of the 1960s, a site of Cold War tensions between the Left on the one hand, and political conservatives who believed that communists were dishonourable in intent.

Late in 1967, not long before his disappearance in the Portsea surf, Prime Minister Harold Holt set up the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, the federal government's response to the successful 1967 Referendum.

HC Coombs, formerly Governor of the Reserve Bank, was appointed to head this body. The other two members were Professor Stanner, a respected anthropologist with experience in public administration, and Barrie Dexter, a senior public servant and formerly the Australian Ambassador to Thailand.

The standing of these men suggests that Holt intended the body, which would advise the government on Aboriginal matters, to have some clout. Following Holt's death, however, Prime Minister John Gorton appointed William Wentworth as Minister-in-charge of Aboriginal Affairs.

This meant that council proposals had to be presented to Cabinet via Wentworth. Moreover, the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, though it did have its own Office of Aboriginal Affairs, never became a statutory body.

Despite these considerable frustrations the Council for Aboriginal Affairs encouraged Aboriginal leadership and supported the protection of Indigenous cultures in various ways. The council, especially during 1972 and the Aboriginal Embassy demonstrations, was often at odds with Peter Howson, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the McMahon ministry.

Poster including the text: 'The Council for ABORIGINAL RIGHTS will hold a Public Meeting To launch a campaign to win justice for the Aboriginal people'. - click to view larger image
Council for Aboriginal Rights

On 16 March 1951 a new Aboriginal rights body with a national focus was formed in Melbourne, despite the fact that the catalyst for this action took place in Darwin.

Residents of the Berrimah Aboriginal Reserve had gone on strike for better wages and for equal legal rights.

The  issue was brought to public attention by the high-handed response of the Territory's Department of Native Affairs in exiling Fred Waters, a Larrakia man and one of the strike leaders, to Haasts' Bluff Reserve, 250 kilometres west of Alice Springs and 1800 kilometres from his Darwin home.

Writer Alan Marshall, Dr Charles Duguid and Pastor Doug Nicholls addressed a meeting at the Melbourne Town Hall in March 1951.

Here, people learned that the principle of habeas corpus, which protected citizens against arrest unless they were charged with an offence, did not apply to Aboriginal Territorians. Nor did award wages.

They also learned that Aboriginal people could not drink alcohol unless they were exempted from the Aboriginals Ordinance, that their movement in towns was controlled and that, like Fred Waters, they could be moved away from their homes whenever the authorities chose.

A new multi-racial body was formed which was prepared to concern itself with cases of injustice experienced by Aboriginal Australians regardless of where they lived. Its aim was to 'plan, conduct and organise the widest possible support for a campaign to obtain just and humane treatment' for all Australian Aborigines.

The council determined that it would be guided by the 1948 United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Membership included representatives from unions, the University of Melbourne, the Council for Civil Liberties, women's organisations and Christian and Jewish faiths. Moreover, individual members and affiliated organisations came from all states and the Northern Territory.

Drawing on the issues of unequal working conditions and the effect of the weapons testing in the desert and its likely effect on nomadic people, Alan Marshall and Charles Duguid drew 900 people to a further public meeting in the Melbourne Town Hall in June 1951.

Shirley Andrews became the secretary in 1952, a position she held until 1961 when Pauline Pickford took over this position. Charles Duguid, President of the South Australian Aborigines Advancement League, considered that the council was the most vital body engaged in investigating Aboriginal issues in the early 1950s.

In 1957 Barry Christophers became president, a position he held for many years. The Council for Aboriginal Rights was a founding member of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement and was represented at the Adelaide meeting which set up the federal body.

In 1958, while most Australians were relaxing in mid-summer February heat, a group of unusual Australians were sacrificing a weekend to travel to Adelaide to discuss a radical idea.

The idea was to form a federal council, uniting existing state bodies to press for greater Commonwealth involvement in Aboriginal affairs and to work for the removal of discriminatory state legislation.

The meeting was a success. They formed a Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA), elected a committee and established a set of principles to guide the new body.

Black and white photo of a man and woman standing in business attire and standing on a street with a city park in the background.
Joe McGinness and Dulcie Flower

Joe McGinness and Dulcie Flower, FCAATSI, 1969

The formation of such a federation had been discussed for a number of years before this time, but the London Anti-Slavery Society's plan to approach the United Nations on behalf of Aboriginal Australians, along with Lady Jessie Street's associated visit to Australia to gather information, added a sense of urgency to these plans.

In addition, the furore generated when the desperate circumstances of those living nomadically in the Warburton Ranges area became public created what Street called 'the psychological moment' for national action.

Throughout 1957 Shirley Andrews planned the February 1958 meeting with input and assistance from other activists, particularly Charles Duguid, President of the South Australian Aborigines Advancement League, and Stan Davey, Secretary of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League.

Three Aboriginal delegates were present at this meeting. Jeff Barnes represented the South Australian Aborigines Advancement League, Pastor Doug Nicholls, field officer of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League, had been active in addressing the welfare needs of Victorian Aboriginal people and Bert Groves, President of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship had been similarly involved in New South Wales.

Newspaper clipping of state delegates having a discussion. The title of the report is: 'Discuss Native Affairs'. - click to view larger image
Twenty-six people attended this meeting, which formed the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, including the three Aboriginal delegates and Bill Onus, an Aboriginal observer, representing the Australian Aborigines' League

Aboriginal delegates Jeff Barnes, Doug Nicholls and Bert Groves, Adelaide, February 1958

The delegates, who met in Adelaide's Willard Hall to set up this new body, were a politically and socially diverse group. They included peace activists, feminists, communists and Christians.

Other bodies represented were the Council for Aboriginal Rights, the Armidale Association for Assimilation of Aborigines, the Western Australian Native Welfare Council and the Queensland United Council for Aboriginal Welfare (which later became the Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders).

The Adelaide Conference elected an executive, set out their broad aim to work for 'equal citizenship rights' and established some basic principles which would drive the new body.

They expressed reservations about the federal government's assimilation policy, and they decided to press for a referendum to amend the Australian Constitution so that the federal government could legislate for Aboriginal people as a group.

Over the next 15 years the organisation grew. Joe McGinness, the Aboriginal Secretary of the Cairns Aboriginal and Islander Advancement League became President in 1961. Gordon Bryant was the Senior Vice-president for many years, and Stan Davey was the General Secretary for the first decade.

From 1963 until 1970 Canberra was the venue and foreign diplomats as well as reporters from the main Australian daily newspapers covered the conference. In 1964, in response to a request from Torres Strait Islanders, the name changed to the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, or FCAATSI.

By 1970 the number of delegates and observers at the annual conference had grown to 350.

Campaigns included those for equal wages, a referendum to change the Australian Constitution, and for rights to land. A committee system was added to the structure of the organisation, covering equal wages, land and reserves, constitutional reform, education and publicity.

Growing Indigenous dissatisfaction about their lack of power in the organisation came to a head at the 1970 conference.

In the early years, FCAA campaigns and general business were controlled by the white majority on the executive. State secretaries were always Indigenous, but it was the essentially white executive group, situated first in Melbourne and then in Sydney, which had most power in the organisation until 1973.

Growing discontent with this situation reached a peak at the 1970 annual conference, which was dominated by discussion of two motions put by Barrie Pittock. Pittock's motions were to reserve both voting power and membership of the executive to people of Aboriginal or Islander descent.

This split the national advancement movement into two camps: those who held that the organisation should continue being run as it had been (with white people able to vote and be on the executive) and those who opted for an all-Indigenous executive and voting rights to be limited to those of Indigenous descent. Aboriginal and Islander members as well as non-Indigenous members were represented on both sides of the debate.

Kath Walker (who would later change her name to Oodgeroo Noonuccal) had argued strongly and passionately for Indigenous people to take control of their own affairs. Together with Doug Nicholls she helped establish a National Tribal Council, a body which would seek Indigenous representation from all states and which would be run by and for Indigenous Australians. Though it started positively, this body lasted less than three years.

In 1973 FCAATSI did finally become an Indigenous-controlled organisation.

By this time, however, with the number of Aboriginal and Islander grass-roots organisations expanding and the formation of both a Department of Aboriginal Affairs and a National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, FCAATSI struggled to be a truly federal umbrella body representing a diverse constituency.

When the federal government suddenly cut FCAATSI's funding in 1978 it was forced to wind up its affairs.

Ted Noffs and Bill Geddes worked with Aboriginal activists Charles Perkins and Ken Brindle and others to create a place that was a welcoming social centre and which, through its self-help approach, encouraged Aboriginal people to take control of their lives and have a go at 'making it' in the broader society.

The Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs was assimilationist in style and supported financially by the Sydney establishment. A massive fundraising appeal in 1964 helped realise the vision of meeting rooms, a gymnasium, counselling services, adult education, a hostel and short-term accommodation.

Charles Perkins became the manager of the Foundation in 1965 and set about talking to businesses, seeking employment for Aboriginal men and women keen to get a job but not having the skills to necessarily find one for themselves.

By 1967 more than 400 people were using the services of the foundation and by the end of the decade Aboriginal executive members began to push for control of the organisation.

In 1973 an all-black management was in place and, as happened in other bodies where racial coalitions gave way to Aboriginal-run bodies, the financial support from the wider community dried up. The foundation closed its doors in 1975.

At the suggestion of Arthur Ellemor, a much respected Methodist missionary, layman John Jago convened this commission, which affiliated with the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement in 1962.

In an article 'The Australian Aboriginal: Is assimilation the answer?', published in The Spectator in July, the National Missionary Council argued that the 1961 definition of assimilation accepted by all governments meant that the Aborigines must give up their way of life, their culture, their law, their language.

The Methodist Commission on Aboriginal Affairs held that if assimilation were to occur it had to be a voluntary process. The commission was active in promoting the argument for an Aboriginal right to land at Yirrkala.

Note: the images in the attachment below were not cleared for use on this website


J Jago to Rev C Gribble, General Secretary, Methodist Overseas Mission, 20 March 1963, Box 30761M 'Aboriginal Affairs', Uniting Church Archives, Elsternwick, Melbourne. This Commission grew out of the earlier Committee on Part-Europeans of the Methodist Church, which, as its name suggests, had a narrower concern than the 1962 Commission.

'The Australian Aboriginal: Is Assimilation the Answer?', The Spectator, 3 July 1963, p. 10.

Along with Nindethana theatre in Melbourne, National Black Theatre in Redfern was one of the first all-Indigenous theatre companies. Established in Redfern in 1972, National Black Theatre was an active and powerful voice in promoting Aboriginality and Indigenous political concerns.

Activists within these theatres saw one of their main goals as being the political education of non-Indigenous people. However, Aboriginal theatre was also a forum for the exploration and celebration of contemporary Indigenous identity.

Actors and playwrights — including Bob Maza, Jack Davis, Aileen Corpus, Lester and Gerry Bostock, Jack Charles, Justine Saunders, Gary Foley and Kevin Gilbert — were among the founders of these theatre companies.

They would often take their concerns to the streets, where they would perform among other activists at protest gatherings, including the Aboriginal Embassy.

In the late 1960s Geraldine Briggs realised the value of having an Indigenous women's organisation, and formed the Victorian Aboriginal and Islander Council.

Other states followed and, in 1972, a National Council of Aboriginal and Islander Women was formed. Mrs Geraldine Briggs became the first president and Miss Margaret Briggs the general secretary.

Indigenous women from New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, Northern Territory and the Torres Strait attended the conference which passed motions concerning the preservation of Indigenous cultures, the employment of Aboriginal welfare workers and the granting of land ownership to Aboriginal people.

The conference was addressed by Dr HC Coombs, chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs; Senator Neville Bonner; Mrs Shirley Smith, who spoke about the formation of the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Aboriginal Medical Service in Sydney; and Dr Diane Barwick, who spoke about the changing role of women in Australian society.

This organisation provided a forum for women to lobby governments on issues of specific concern to them.

Under the chairmanship of its General Secretary Frank Engel, the National Missionary Council rewrote its policy with regard to assimilation in two leaflets that were released in June 1963.

'The meaning of assimilation' stated that Aboriginal people had rights 'as a responsible people', that assimilation of Aborigines into the life of the community must be subject to their consent and that they must have the 'opportunity to participate freely in drawing up plans and executing policies which concern their welfare'.

'Four major issues in assimilation' identified land, language, law and political education as issues requiring 'urgent development'. More attention was paid in the leaflet to the first issue than the other three combined.

'It must never be forgotten,' readers were reminded, 'that, for the most part, Australia was taken from the Aborigines by force without payment or compensation, or recognition of their inherent title to the land.'

On the basis of this understanding, the National Missionary Council argued that a 'moral responsibility' rested upon white people and their governments to 'set right in some measure the wrong that was done'. Three ways to achieve this were suggested.

The first was to guarantee 'corporate freehold ownership of remaining reserves as the rightful heritage of certain tribes'. The second was for federal and state governments to assist groups to purchase land. The third was the development of schemes of land settlement under federal and state governments, with appropriate agricultural training.

 - click to view larger image
National Tribal Council logo

In the late 1960s, frustrated with the slow pace of change effected by the multi-racial organisations, younger more militant Aboriginal activists began establishing bodies with an exclusively Indigenous membership.

By the time of the 1970 Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) conference, a Brisbane Tribal Council led by Denis Walker, and a Victorian Tribal Council led by Stewart Murray, had been established.

Barrie Pittock, a member of the FCAATSI executive, moved two motions at the 1970 FCAATSI conference.

The first was that the executive shall consist of people of Australian Aboriginal or Islander descent only. The second was that only individuals of Australian Aboriginal or Islander descent may exercise the vote at the annual general meeting.

Debate on these motions dominated the conference and led to a deeply felt, and lasting, ideological split.

The required two-thirds majority to amend the constitution was not achieved, but Kath Walker and Doug Nicholls, both respected Aboriginal leaders, called those who had voted for the motions to one side of the hall at the end of the meeting. A new organisation, the National Tribal Council, was planned and later formalised.

The organisation began in hope for Indigenous Australians as they sought to take control of their own affairs. Part of the preamble to their policy manifesto read:

We representatives of the Aboriginal and Islander peoples of Australia reaffirm our pride in our own history, culture, and achievements as peoples ... Today we assert our right to stand in full economic, legal, and social equality beside white Australians, with whom we wish to live in peace and harmony ... We stand for self-reliance. We hope for aid both morally and financially, but cannot be dependent on it. We depend on our own efforts, on the united stance of our own people ...

Despite this idealistic beginning, the National Tribal Council was active for less than three years. With the election of a Labor government at the end of 1972, the formation of grassroots Indigenous organisations was encouraged and energies were directed at the local rather than national level.


National Tribal Council Policy Manifesto, adopted September 1970.

The Native Welfare Council was formed in 1952 at the request of the Western Australian Minister for Native Affairs. At the time, a number of bodies representing Aboriginal interests existed in Perth and both the Minister and these bodies could see the value of having one council to negotiate with government.

One of the drawbacks of this body, however, was that by the end of the 1950s, when other state bodies were more adversarial in approaching governments, the Western Australian Council already had an entrenched culture of working with the government rather than being critical of it.

Sixteen bodies were represented at the first meeting. Cyril Gare was, for many years, the chair of the Council. The council affiliated with the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement in 1958 but its membership of this parent body was sporadic.

For many years the Native Welfare Council ran the Allawah Grove Project, a community-organised scheme which provided services such as a kindergarten for Aboriginal children and encouraged social and economic initiatives among the adults. Later the Native Welfare Council worked for the building of an Aboriginal centre in Perth.

Until the mid-1960s the North Australian Workers Union (NAWU) had paid little regard to the position of Aboriginal workers in the pastoral industry in Northern Territory. These workers were controlled by the Welfare Ordinance and the Wards Employment Ordinance and were thus ineligible for the award wages received by non-Aboriginal workers.

The formation, in late 1961, of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights, which had equal wages central to its platform, led to pressure on the union in this regard. In September 1964 the Social Welfare Ordinance replaced the old Welfare Ordinance, making possible the introduction of award wages.

The following month, the Central Council of the NAWU took the decision to appoint an Aboriginal organiser. Sydney James Cook was the first to hold this post but he was successfully challenged by Dexter Daniels, a Roper River man whose brother Davis was secretary of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights.

The stage was set for action on equal wages in the industry.

The NAWU applied to vary the Cattle Station Industry (Northern Territory) Award to include Aboriginal workers. Throughout 1965 Conciliation and Arbitration hearings were held on this matter.

The union did not bring any Aboriginal workers forward as witnesses in arguing for their inclusion in the award, treating the issue rather as a matter of principle. The commission ruled in favour of equal wages, but gave the industry until December 1968 to implement the decision.

In response, workers walked off stations at Newcastle Waters, Wave Hill and other pastoral properties in the Northern Territory in protest, beginning an action which culminated in the return, a decade later, of land to the Gurindji people.

Due to a downturn in the cattle industry as well as the introduction of road trains and helicopter mustering, the equal wages decision was never particularly beneficial to Aboriginal pastoral workers.


Bernie Brian, 'The Territory's one big union: The rise and fall of the North Australian Workers Union', PhD thesis, Northern Territory University, 2001.

Andrew Markus, 'Talk longa mouth' in A Curthoys and A Markus, Who Are Our Enemies? Racism and the Working Class in Australia, Hale and Iremonger, 1978.

Unlike similar bodies, the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights (NTCAR) was an Aboriginal organisation.

Following a meeting with Dr Barry Christophers and armed with a copy of the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights constitution Brian Manning and fellow member of the Communist Party of Australia, Terry Robinson, met with interested Aboriginal people.

Late in 1961 the organisation was formed with a constitution based on their sister organisation in Melbourne but with an added clause requiring that 75 per cent of executive members be of Aboriginal descent. This was unusual for such organisations at this time. Jacob Roberts was the first president with Phillip Roberts taking over in 1962.

It affiliated with the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement in 1962, thus giving a voting majority power within the Federal Council to the left-wing Aboriginal affiliates: the Victorian Council for the Aboriginal Rights, the New South Wales Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship and the Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

The Council confronted discrimination wherever it emerged, whether it be the right to be served in a hotel or the right to sit anywhere in a picture theatre. NTCAR demonstrated against the mandatory jailing of Aboriginal citizens for sharing alcohol with relatives who were wards of the state. It assisted Aboriginal employees to obtain award wages in the railways and on the wharf.

From 1966 the Gurindji walk-off became the focus of activity with the NTCAR providing support for striking workers and publicity about the issue.

Following the untimely death of George Gibbs in 1976 the Council was wound up by Moira Gibbs. By this time, as a result of Whitlam government initiatives, consultative bodies had been set up in the Northern Territory and elsewhere.

On Aboriginal Affairs was the name of a periodical which set out to inform the Australian public on Aboriginal issues and to encourage readers to think in new ways about these issues.

It was produced from 1962 to 1967 by a small independent Melbourne group. Its members were BR Beatty, J Claridge, J Weetman, JB Webb, LM Webb and I Spalding, who was the editor of the periodical.

Seventeen issues were produced during these years and were initially sent to all Australian politicians, welfare bodies that worked with Aboriginal people, teachers and education department heads, churches and significant individuals. The group also produced a series of information papers.

This publication was valuable in a number of ways. First, it was genuinely independent in that it did not promote views that came from any particular political or religious framework.

Second, it made material available to a wide spectrum of the public who would not otherwise get access to it.

Some examples are worth mentioning. An address by Professor Bill Geddes 'Maori and Aborigines: A comparison of attitudes and policies', which he gave to the ANZAAS conference in Brisbane in 1961, provided an opportunity for people to compare, unfavourably for Australia, government responses to the displaced Indigenous peoples in both places. It was printed as an 'information paper'.

Another example, a parliamentary speech by Kim Beazley senior, was reprinted in which Beazley argued that the time had come for consideration of an Aboriginal title to land. See National Land Rights Campaign

Third, On Aboriginal Affairs was distributed broadly in both city and rural areas. It provided information and ideas from overseas and from various parts of Australia. In 1965 it made the International Labor Organisation Convention 107 available as an 'information paper'.

This convention concerned the 'protection and integration of Indigenous and other tribal and semi-tribal populations in independent countries'. Although ratified by at least 17 countries at the time of printing, Australia was not one of them.

Lastly, the editorials presented arguments that were thoughtful and often ahead of their time. The March–April 1963 issue presented moral, social and economic arguments for Aboriginal land rights at a time when this term was not in general use. See National Land Rights Campaign

The One People of Australia League (OPAL) was formed in 1961 in Queensland, and was comprised predominantly of members from the mainstream Christian churches and service organisations.

Many of OPAL's members were critical of the Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, who they saw as subversively pro-Communist. OPAL was one of the few Aboriginal advancement or rights organisations to never affiliate with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI).

OPAL was overtly assimilationist in orientation and, until 1975 when its goal became the promotion of cooperation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, its stated aim was the 'welding' of these two groups.

OPAL was critical of overt political activism, preferring instead to liaise with the Queensland Government — from whom it received large monetary grants — and those Indigenous people in need of housing, education or welfare assistance. Thus it was difficult for OPAL to criticise the activities of the Queensland Government.

Neville Bonner, Australia's first Indigenous senator, was President of OPAL from 1968 to 1975.

Following the 1946–1949 pastoral strike by Aboriginal men in the Pilbara, the strikers formed a community which sought economic and social independence from the pastoralists.

Don McLeod, in conversations with Dooley Bin Bin and Clancy McKenna, who had both worked in the pastoral industry, had seen the strike strategy as a way for the people to gain control of their lives. McLeod believed that a cooperative would be the structure most suitable to Aboriginal social organisation.

The group was, however, illiterate and thus unable to give signed consent and, as a result, the Northern Development and Mining Company Pty Ltd was set up in 1951, the first Aboriginal-owned company in Western Australia. The company went into liquidation in 1953.

In 1955 Pindan Pty Ltd was established, a company in which all the shareholders were Aboriginal people (Pindan is the name for the red earth of the Pilbara).

Throughout the 1950s Don McLeod and Stanley Guise Middleton, Commissioner for Native Affairs, were locked in a bitter ideological battle when it came to models of Aboriginal industry.

In 1958 more than two dozen Pindan men went to Perth to fight a defamation case against Middleton and the Australian Broadcasting Commission. They were partially successful.

Pindan group, 1958

These men came to Perth as witnesses in an action against Middleton, the Commissioner of Native Welfare, in 1958

Middleton played a part in the failure of the first venture, Northern Development and Mining, and continued to scrutinise the new venture. From 1955 to 1959 Pindan Company operated as a mining company drawing on traditional yandying skills (a yandy is a long shallow dish) in separating the minerals.

A community of about 600 people was developing confidence in their ability to operate successfully in a white man's world without losing control of their own. Jacob Oberdoo, one of the Pindan shareholders, made the long journey to the Brisbane Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement conference in 1961 to tell people about the Pindan venture.

In 1959 the group split. Ernie Mitchell and Peter Coppin led one section of the community. They purchased Yandeyarra station and operated successfully for many years.

The other section, led by Don McLeod, established Nomads Pty Ltd and purchased Strelley Station, Warralong and others. Today, some land in the Pilbara has been returned to traditional Aboriginal owners.

Further reading

Don W McLeod, How the West Was Lost, Port Hedland, 1984.

Kingsley Palmer and Clancy McKenna, Somewhere Between Black and White: The Story of an Aboriginal Australian, Macmillan, 1978.

Jolly Read and Peter Coppin, Kangushot: The Life of a Nyamal Lawman, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1999.

Various files from the State Records Office of Western Australia (4069, 3733, 3390, 5761, 993).

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This Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement conference was held at the University of Queensland

Don Dunstan and Jacob Oberdoo facing audience, Brisbane 1961

Ada Bromham brought together a number of existing bodies into one council to represent Queensland when a federal organisation was being planned late in 1957.

Members were both black and white, with Kath Walker (later Oodgeroo Noonuccal) playing a very active role throughout the life of the council.

In the early 1960s a schism developed among those members, often described as 'lefties' or communists, who were prepared to challenge racist Queensland legislation, and others who were less prepared to rock the boat.

This latter group formed the One People of Australia League (OPAL).

The Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (QCAATSI) played a leading role in a number of national campaigns, especially for the referendum and the campaign for land rights.

Other active members included Lambert McBride, Celia Smith, Kathy Cochrane, Rodney Hall and Daisy Marchisotti. QCAATSI organised the fourth annual conference of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, held at the University of Queensland in 1961.

The Society of Friends has a very long history of active opposition to race-based thinking.

At the Quakers' April 1963 seminar in Melbourne, Aboriginal land tenure was the main issue of debate. A policy statement on land drew attention to the complete lack of Aboriginal rights to land, the individualist approach to assimilation which effectively worked against the development of Aboriginal pressure groups, and the moral and economic bases of arguments for land.

Recommendations included a statement that trained personnel 'should be involved in making future plans with Aboriginal people, rather than for them', and that 'group self-determination must be encouraged and recognised'.

The Society of Friends was affiliated with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and had active members in all mainland states working for Aboriginal rights. Barrie Pittock was one of its most outspoken members on Aboriginal issues, particularly concerning land rights and self determination.

Formed in 1939, the South Australian Aborigines' Advancement League initially worked to establish a hostel for young Aboriginal people who were coming to Adelaide to gain an education. It maintained and supported the hostel for a number of years.

The league worked to expose and overcome racial discrimination in the workplace. In addition, it agitated for the repeal of discriminatory legislation such as the Police Offences Act, which outlawed 'consorting' between Aboriginal and white Australians.

The league hosted the inaugural meeting of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement in February 1958. It affiliated with the Federal Council, although it was often critical of the federal body, sometimes accusing it of being high-handed in decision-making and of being dominated by members of the Communist Party.

Charles Duguid, the league's founder, and its president for many years did, however, support the Federal Council as the most likely way of agitating for national change for Aboriginal Australians.

Student Action for Aborigines, University of Sydney

At a time when racism was seen by many Australians as existing mainly in South Africa or the southern states of the USA, University of Sydney students decided on a plan of action which would awaken the community to the reality of Australian racism.

Charles Perkins, one of only two Aboriginal students at the University at this time, was elected president of the newly-formed Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA). Interested students came from the ALP, the Newman society, the Jewish Students Union and the Civil Liberties Association.

SAFA hit the headlines when, in February 1965, the students hired a bus and went on a 'Freedom Ride', visiting some of the most racist towns in New South Wales.

Public places such as town halls, hotels and swimming pools routinely excluded Aboriginal people on the basis of race. In Moree, Perkins and the other students befriended Aboriginal children who had been barred from entering the town swimming pool.

One of the students on the bus, Darce Cassidy, was also a part-time reporter from the Australian Broadcasting Commission. He filmed and sent footage of ugly confrontations in towns such as Moree and Walgett. Charles Perkins flew to Sydney to take part in a television debate on Four Corners with the Shire Clerk of Walgett.

The nation's newspapers covered the Freedom Ride and, at the Easter conference of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), Charles Perkins reported to an audience of more than 200 people in Canberra.

'The problem is out in the open now,' he told them, and suggested necessary follow-up work such as the building of relationships with local Aboriginal groups, improved services and access to education for Aboriginal residents in western New South Wales towns.

SAFA engaged in some further visits to country towns later in the year but, by the end of 1966, it was finished as a political force.

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This cooperative for Aborigines was founded by Reverend Alf Clint and the Australian Board of Missions in 1957 and took on the name of the sandstone building, Tranby, in which it was housed.

It provided courses to Aboriginal and Islander people from all over Australia. Moa Island and Yarrabah people were trained to run their own cooperative bakeries; and the people from Cabbage Tree Island learned bookkeepng in order to run their own cooperative.

Tranby was more than a school, becoming a meeting place and a centre in many struggles for justice. In 1962 it became independent of the Board of Missions.

Today it is known as Tranby Aboriginal College and provides secondary and tertiary courses, as well as responding to community needs by offering, for example, a course in Land Council Management.

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The Union of Australian Women was formed in 1950. Founding members included members of the Communist Party of Australia, the Australian Labor Party, members of the New Housewives Association and Christian activists.

The organisation affiliated with the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement in the early 1960s and contributed to campaigns for racial equality for Indigenous Australians and for their right to land. Aboriginal activists Gladys O'Shane from Cairns and Pearl Gibbs from Sydney were members.

Eva Bacon from Queensland, Barbara Curthoys from Newcastle, and Pauline Pickford, Secretary of the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights took active roles in the 1960s in the work for Aboriginal rights.

Marjorie Oke, also an active member, formed a branch of the Aboriginal Advancement League in Gippsland, Victoria and invited Gladys O'Shane down from Cairns to address them.

The Union of Australian Women was under surveillance by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, which considered it as a front for the Communist Party of Australia.

It provided a voice for Indigenous activists such as Gladys O'Shane, Ruth Wallace, Muriel Callope and Marcia Langton, in their efforts to inform other women of the particular difficulties faced by Indigenous women.

Black and white poster featuring two men wearing 60's style clothing. The publication is: 'OFFICIAL ORGAN OF ABORIGINES ADVANCEMENT LEAGUE (VIC)'. - click to view larger image
Cover of Smoke Signals, August–September 1965

In March 1957 those who had responded to the Warburton Ranges crisis by forming a Save the Aborigines Committee realised that a broader, more enduring body was needed. They disbanded this committee and established a new organisation.

The Aborigines Advancement League with Gordon Bryant as president, Doris Blackburn as deputy president, Stan Davey as secretary and Pastor Doug Nicholls as field officer was the result.

This organisation grew rapidly over the next few years. Branches were established through suburban Melbourne and in country Victoria.

Early political activity included the drafting and circulating of a petition requesting a referendum to amend the Constitution so as to empower the federal parliament to legislate in Aboriginal affairs.

A second early action was to establish a defence fund for Albert Namatjira who was appealing his conviction of supplying liquor to an Aboriginal ward of the state.

In the late 1960s the organisation moved to full Aboriginal control. Still operating today, it is the oldest Indigenous organisation in Australia.

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As its name suggests, the main purpose of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was to educate the community as to the social costs of drunkenness and to encourage temperance.

The organisation, which began towards the end of the 19th century, had branches in all Australian cities and became involved in other social issues such as women's rights, opposition to nuclear testing on Australian soil and Aboriginal welfare.

Two of its committee members, Ada Bromham and Doris Blackburn, campaigned actively in support of women's rights, peace and Aboriginal rights.

The WCTU was affiliated to the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement in the 1960s.

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Anna Vroland and Doris Blackburn were two Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) members who used this international organisation in the 1950s and 1960s to campaign against the discriminatory laws which stripped Aboriginal Australians of their rights as citizens.

Both women actively opposed the British/Australian weapons testing project in central Australia which showed scant regard for the effects of nuclear testing on the Indigenous inhabitants of the Great Victoria Desert.

In the 1960s WILPF affiliated with the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement. Vivienne Abrahams regularly represented her organisation at Canberra annual conferences.

WILPF's overall goal is to bring together women of different political beliefs and philosophies who are working to abolish the causes and the legitimation of war. WILPF believes that racial discrimination and exploitation prevents peace and holds that racial justice is essential for a peaceful society.

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