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Civil Rights Activism In Australia

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Part of Australia’s history is the horrendous treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The arrival of British settlers in 1788 set the stage of struggle with human rights for the Indigenous People, as they faced segregation, assimilation and the systematic attempt to erase their race, through the means of the Stolen Generation. It was only until the UN created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the disturbing neglect of human rights displayed in Nazi Germany during World War II, that attention would be brought to the racial injustice in Australia. The UDHR started a wave of Civil Rights movements across the world, especially in the United States, influencing change in Australia too. The US Civil Rights movement inspired activism in 1960s Australia for equality, achieving change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, however, inequality still exists which people are often ignorant to and further efforts must be made to achieve true reconciliation and equality.

The US Civil Rights movement was a huge turning point in the history of human rights. For centuries African Americans suffered, and during the 1960s many activists fought for change and equality. Protests such as the freedom rides, and Rosa Parks bus boycott confronted the racial segregation in America. In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led 250 000 people on a civil rights march in Washington, with his inspirational speech; “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”. President Johnson responded to the protest, and on July 2nd, 1964, the US Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination based on race or gender. The legacy of King’s dream and the non-violent protests to engage in racial equality also inspired many Australians to fight for change. The US Civil Right movement and Dr. Luther King Jr. had an influence on a worldwide level, inspiring Australian activists such as Charles Perkins.

Following America, Australia began its own Civil Rights movement, advocating for the rights of Indigenous Australians. A series of protests occurred in Australia, where leaders pursued change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, changing Australians’ perspectives on activism. In 1965 SAFA, led by Charles Perkin, organised the Freedom Ride: a bus tour through New South Wales towns. Their goal was to draw attention to the poor living conditions of the Aboriginal communities by broadcasting their demonstrations on the news and radio, exposing the racism in the towns. The freedom rides had huge effects as it was a wakeup call for ignorant Australians who foolishly believed in the self-proclaimed multiculturalism of Australia. Another major protest was the Wave Hill Station walk-off on August 23,1966, led by Vincent Lingiari. Although the walk-off was in response to unfair wages, the purpose would be the start of a long battle for land rights, leading to Eddie Mabo’s victory in 1992. In 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handed over 3300 square kilometers of land to the Gurindji people by significantly pouring dirt into Lingiari’s hand, in response to the demonstration. Therefore, activism during the 60s-70s successfully changed the perspective of many Australians, leading to government intervention and eventually legal alterations.

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The Australian Civil Rights movement bore the way for the Reconciliation movement as the government began to acknowledge the inequalities that existed and moved towards ending them. This activism had huge benefits and many of the protests were successful. For example, the Mabo decision led to the Native Title Act 1993 which gave back ‘crown land’ to the Indigenous people and the activism led to the 1967 Referendum which allowed Federal government to make laws regarding Indigenous peoples, as well as their inclusion in a census. A massive milestone in the recognition of the wrongdoings towards Indigenous Australians by the government was the Redfern Park Speech. In 1993, Prime Minister Paul Keating addressed an audience in Redfern, being the first Prime Minister to acknowledge and take responsibility for past mistakes. He said, “It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion”. However, it wasn’t until 2008 when a formal apology was made by PM Kevin Rudd to the Stolen Generation for the unjust treatment they had faced. Thus, Civil Rights Activism In Australia has led to massive change for Indigenous Australians; positive progress has been made.

The efforts made to pursue civil rights made some progress, however, there are many negative effects due to activism. The government apology and legal alterations have been followed by results that show there has been a worsening in Aboriginal lifestyle, which wasn’t expected by the activists who fought for improvement. In 2007 PM John Howard staged ‘The Intervention’ with hope of improving the lifestyle of Aboriginal people. The policy included welfare payment restrictions, ban on alcohol and pornography and increased police and medical aid in child sex abuse cases. However, the 2010 Closing the Gap report showed that reports of child sex abuse and alcohol-related violence had increased, proving that recent efforts have been unsuccessful. Perhaps the continued inequalities displayed shows how reconciliation is only the beginning of equality? The Politics of Suffering, by Peter Sutton, chronicles how well-meant Aboriginal Affairs policies in the 70s did improve welfare and service, but inadvertently increased child abuse, domestic violence and drug and alcohol use. Overall, there were short-term benefits of the activism in Australia such as reconciliation, however it’s followed by devastating repercussions that must be addressed.

The US Civil Rights movement has influenced change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders by encouraging activism, however inequalities still exist today and must be acted upon, to fully ensure equality in Australia. The efforts of significant individuals and groups of people have influenced many to pursue equality. But it wasn’t all good, as it has been found that many problems have increased rather than ended, despite the efforts made by activists. Perhaps, these issues are still at large today as there is still a lack of respect towards the culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. To move towards self-determination there must also be efforts made towards self-identity, as there is a generation of people who are culturally lost after being forced to assimilate into British colonial society. There must be ongoing practical efforts on everyone’s part, not just acknowledgement and apologies, otherwise racial equality is just another political stunt.

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Civil Rights Activism In Australia. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from
“Civil Rights Activism In Australia.” Edubirdie, 17 Mar. 2022,
Civil Rights Activism In Australia. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 Sept. 2023].
Civil Rights Activism In Australia [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Mar 17 [cited 2023 Sept 22]. Available from:
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