Remembering the one man who spoke against Nazis
One Christian, Aboriginal man in the 1930s was the only person in the world who led an official non-government protest against the initial attacks upon Jews by Germany’s Nazi party. William Cooper is one of the Indigenous Australians whose contribution to our nation and society should be celebrated during the annual NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week, held between July 5 and 12. NAIDOC Week is a very significant event in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders calendar, as it rejoices in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, people, achievements and legacies.
Honoured in the Yad Vashem — Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust atrocities — William Cooper didn’t just publicly oppose how a majority group was oppressing a minority in Germany. He also was an advocate for his own people, including being instrumental in establishing NAIDOC Week.
William grew up in the early 1900s in NSW. He was taught to read and write by missionaries who ran a school for aboriginal children. From the Bible he learned that all people are created by God. William also learned the words of Jesus:”Treat other people the way you want them to treat you.” (Luke 6:31) He became a Christian and accepted these truths. As he grew older, he realised that Aboriginal people were not being treated this way. Before the 1960s, Australia’s indigenous people were not Australian citizens, despite being born in Australia and their ancestors having lived here for generations. They were not allowed to vote or counted in census figures. In short, they did not have the same rights as white people. They were like nobodies in their own country.
Founder of the Australian Aborigines League, William wrote letters to government leaders protesting the inequality he saw around him. He also gathered more than 1800 signatures on a petition to England’s King George V and VI, calling for the improving of rights for Aboriginals.
The Australian Government did not forward this petition, due to laws and attitudes not regarding any Aboriginal person as an Australian citizen.
Birth of NAIDOC Week
But William didn’t give up. As a member of the Australian Workers Union, he had many friends within that organisation that helped him in his cause. One of his biggest achievements was persuading some church leaders to recognise an Aboriginal Sunday starting in 1940 (on the day before Australia Day).
This became National Aborigines Day, which was changed to July. It became a celebration of aboriginal culture… which we now know as NAIDOC Week!
The only protest in the world
People around the world were shocked when on 9 November 1938, Nazis in Germany terrorised Jewish people. They burned synagogues and smashed homes and businesses; 91 Jews were killed and 30,000 deported to concentration camps. But William Cooper knew that he needed to protest the injustice that was happening. As someone who had experienced oppression himself, he spoke passionately against it and led a deputation to the German consulate in Melbourne.
The resolution they left there voiced “on behalf of the Aborigines of Australia, a strong protest at the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi Government of Germany”. It asked that this persecution be brought to an end.
This was the only known non-government protest worldwide against the initial Nazi attack on the Jews. In recent years, Jewish communities in Israel and Australia have honoured William, whose Christian beliefs led him to action on behalf of those who were oppressed.
What a legacy! What a challenge! How active are we in speaking up for those who are unable to speak for themselves?
Sally Smith, DIDUNO Network