On December 6, 1938, a fierce-gazed Indigenous man from the Murray River began a march from Southampton Street Footscray to make a simple demand for justice at government offices at 419-425 Collins Street, Melbourne. But this wasn’t a protest to defend Aborigines. It was a protest to defend Jews. And it wasn’t against a state government or Federal government. It was the German Government.
The protest was led by William Cooper. And 75 years after the event, it’s now clear that it was the only one of its kind. It’s something that didn’t happen in London, or in Paris or even in New York. It happened in Melbourne, organised by people who weren’t even citizens in their own country.
On that day, towards the end of his life, William Cooper stood up for the Jews of Europe. But as you’ll learn, it was only one of many astounding acts of justice this man made, even in his last years.
Who was William Cooper?
William Cooper was an Aboriginal. An activist. A unionist. A devout, Bible-reading, church-going, hymn-singing Christian.
Through his life, he worked as a shearer, a writer, a public speaker and, by the time he died in 1941, a political leader who could successfully demand a face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister. As a man in his 70s, he started Australia’s first indigenous justice movement – the Australian Aborigines’ League. A movement which, long after his own death, would lead to the famous 1967 referendum.
But this was no communist radical. William Cooper was a Christian who believed the best thing that had happened for Australia’s first peoples was the Christian missions. He would argue passionately, often from the Bible, that Aboriginals ought to be treated as equal citizens in this country.
Once you learn where William Cooper came from, and how he came to stand up to injustice, you’ll wonder why you hadn’t heard of him before. But to begin, take a closer look at the day he challenged the Third Reich.
The March Against Tyranny
It was with his friends from the Australian Aborigines’ League that Cooper resolved to stand up to Hitler. It followed the night of “broken glass” on 9–10 November, 1938. In that terrifying 24 hours, Adolf Hitler’s brown shirts, the Sturmabteilung, rampaged through the streets of Germany looting, burning and smashing Jewish stores, buildings and synagogues. In just a few hours, nearly 100 Jews were killed and approximately 30,000 incarcerated in concentration camps.
Across the country, Australians were stunned as they read the stories in their newspapers. But Cooper stood up, gathered his Indigenous friends and family from Fitzory and Footscray, and they walked. Mind you, one of the reasons they walked was they had no money. In fact, Cooper was raising several grandkids in his home, and they didn’t even have electricity or gas. He’d rather spend it on ink, paper and stamps for his work for the Australian Aborigines’ League.
They arrived at the imposing stone building and climbed the stairs. He demanded a meeting with Doctor Drechsler, the General Consul of the Reichs Consulat – to speak against the Nazi mistreatment of Jews that had begun on Kristallnacht a few weeks before. But when they got to the door of the Reichs Consulate, the Nazi administration wouldn’t let them in.
Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the world’s leading Holocaust research centre, says that, indeed, this protest was the only one of it’s kind in the world.
How did this happen? Why was it that – of all minority groups who could have stood up for the Jews in the 1930s – it was an Aboriginal man from one of the smallest tribes who made a stand? What drove this man, who could have been spending his twilight years fishing for Murray Cod in the Barmah Forest, to become a man who meddled in matters of state? What gave him the temerity to speak against the German Reich?