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William Cooper set the pace for social justice

  • 05 December 2018


Economists have GDPs. Workers have KPIs. Athletes have PBs. But what about social justice activists? Could there be a Social Justice Measure (SJM) for how much a person cares about justice?

If such a calculation was possible, I wonder if the unit of measurement might be the kilometre, and the measure might be something like, 'How far would a person walk in support of a cause that wasn't theirs, for people they would never meet, in a place they would likely never themselves see?'

Ten kilometres. That was William Cooper's SJM 80 years ago, on 6 December 1938, when the 77-year-old Yorta Yorta elder walked ten kilometres to deliver a letter to the German consulate protesting the attacks on Jewish people during Kristallnacht nearly a month earlier.

The terrible events of Kristallnacht had provoked newspaper headlines around the world. Dozens of Jewish people had been killed, Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues had been attacked, and thousands incarcerated in what was a chilling prelude to the Holocaust.

The letter that Cooper and his companions delivered read: 'On behalf of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia, we wish to have it registered and on record that we protest wholeheartedly at the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government in Germany. We plead that you would make it known to your government and its military leaders that this cruel persecution of their fellow citizens must be brought to an end.'

The message never reached its intended audience — the protesters turned away at the gate. But their point was made. While there were other protests against the rise of Nazism, Cooper's was the only known privately organised event. Not a government, or a union movement — just a private citizen, deciding to make a stand.

Cooper was already a bona fide leader among his own people even before this protest. He represented Aboriginal communities in northern Victoria and western NSW who had to survive the drought of the 1920s and Great Depression of the 1930s without any government aid. He was a founding secretary of the Australian Aborigines' League in 1936, and petitioned the King for Aboriginal representation in parliament.


"Cooper saw that the only way we can create a truly flourishing human community is if we see all human beings as part of one global family."


He even started the Australia Day protest movement. On 26 January 1938, as Australia marked the 150th anniversary of the arrival of