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brief history of the ‘Day of Mourning and Protest’ event

Mesnage, G. Contested Spaces Contested Times June 1998

"Day of Mourning and Protest"

The "Day of Mourning and Protest" Aboriginal Conference was held in the old Australian Hall, on the 26th of January, 1938, in the midst of the sesquicentenary celebrations. It was the first national Aboriginal civil rights gathering. The protest brought together 100 Aboriginal men and women from all over New South Wales, Victoria and, possibly, Queensland. Messages of solidarity were sent by Aboriginal activists from all over Australia. The participants met at great risk to themselves and their families. The Conference was convened in just two months, quite a feat considering the severe logistical and political limitations facing the organisers. There were severe restrictions on Aboriginal people's rights of movement and assembly. Prior to the Conference, the civil rights leaders travelled all over New South Wales in a borrowed, beaten-up old car, on bicycles, or on foot, to inform the Aboriginal residents living on the reserves about the plans to gather in Sydney for a "Day of Mourning and Protest" during the sesquicentenary celebrations They produced a hand-bill advertising the Conference, stating that Aborigines only were welcome to attend. This hand-bill was printed at the offices of the Publicist, a right-wing magazine published by W.J. Miles and P.R. "Inky" Stephensen, who were involved in nationalist organisations. The reason for the relationship between the Aboriginal activists and these proponents of nationalist views is intriguing, and is the subject of some current controversial debate. However, I do not propose to enter this debate here, as I do not believe that the relationship was of great importance in the context of this thesis.

The original plan was to hold the Conference in the Sydney Town Hall, but they were denied permission. So they chose to meet at the Australian Hall. In order to be able to rent this hall, they had to accept a humiliating compromise. They were forced to come and watch the March Past at the Sydney Town Hall of the official sesquicentenary parade. This is the reason why all the rallies organised to fight to save the building have assembled at the Town Hall. I ask the reader of this thesis to imagine the overwhelming feelings of anger, grief and alienation that must have gone through the minds of this small group of Aboriginal men and women who had to walk from Sydney Town Hall that day, pushing their way through the crowds of cheering white citizens celebrating the 'birth' of the nation. Imagine the courage, conviction and determination it took for them to take every step as they walked to the Australian Hall. When they arrived, they found that the front door was guarded by two police officers. It is believed that some of the activists chose to enter the hall by a back entrance, because being seen to participate in such a political action could result in severe penalties and reprisals, including expulsion from the reserves where many of them were forced to reside.

The demands made at that gathering were to shape the future direction of Aboriginal affairs in this country. The issues discussed that day included the return of stolen lands, citizens rights, Aboriginal representation in parliament, living conditions on the reserves, equal opportunity to employment and education, health, housing, recognition of Aboriginal law, the abolition of the Aborigines' Protection Board (established 1883), and revocation of the policy of abducting and enslaving of Aboriginal children without court approval. In the days preceding the meeting, William Ferguson and John (Jack) Patten, two of the leaders of the civil rights movement, wrote a 12-page Manifesto entitled Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights, which set out the grievances that had led them to take this action. The pamphlet was sent to the press in all states, receiving coverage in many of the leading newspapers. There is also some current debate about the authorship of this pamphlet, and the intent of its message – but I will not enter this debate either.

The opening statement of the Manifesto reads:

"The 26th of January, 1938, is not a day of rejoicing for Australia's Aborigines; it is a day of mourning. This festival of 150 years' so-called "progress" in Australia commemorates also 150 years of misery and degradation imposed upon the original native inhabitants by the white invaders of this country."

"We, representing the Aborigines, now ask you, the reader of this appeal, to pause in the midst of your sesqui-centenary rejoicings and ask yourself honestly whether your "conscience" is clear in regard to the treatment of the Australian blacks by the Australian whites during the period of 150 years' history which you celebrate?"

The deliberations that emerged from this gathering were formulated in a ten-point list of demands presented to the then Prime Minister, Mr Joseph Lyons, on the 31st of January, 1938. This ten-point list included demands that were to form the basis for the constitutional amendments endorsed by the Australian people in the Referendum of the 27th of May, 1967, which then enabled various legislative milestones, including the Native Title Act 1993.

In 1937, the civil rights leaders had submitted a petition signed by 1 800 Aboriginal people from all over Australia, seeking Aboriginal representation in parliament. This petition had been initiated by William Cooper, who attended the "Day of Mourning and Protest". Despite ill-health, he had travelled all around the country collecting signatures. The petition was addressed to the ruling British Monarch. However, on 7th February 1938, Federal Cabinet decided that no purpose would be served by forwarding the petition to the King, and it was never sent. The NSW state government has now issued a discussion paper on the issue of Aboriginal parliamentary representation, sixty years after William Cooper's petition was rejected.

The recently conducted National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families (Stolen Generations Inquiry) can be traced back to the demands made in the Australian Hall in 1938, when the delegates condemned the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families, and demanded the abolition of the Aborigines Protection Board.

All these factors mean that this event is regarded as being of pivotal historical importance in the history of this country.

Footnotes not included in this excerpt.

Reproduced with permission of the author, Gisele Mesnage.

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