We are thrilled to bring you this short excerpt from our Bloc Club book, Not Just Black and White: A Conversation Between a Mother and Daughter, in which the two authors—Lesley Willams and her daughter Tammy—recall the civil-rights struggle in Australia.
Archival Photo from the 1967 'Aboriginal Referendum'
The 1960s ended about a decade before I was born, but as I matured, and learned more about our history – and about the law – I read with great interest about the ‘liberation’ movements of this era. I became fascinated by the struggles of other minority groups and the impact of those on the rights of my own people in Australia during this time – in particular the historic 1967 ‘Aboriginal Referendum’ and the campaign to remove the discriminatory references to Aboriginal people in the national Constitution. Though I’m not an expert in the area, this is my understanding of the events surrounding the historic referendum.
As the tide of the civil rights movement swept across the world and reached Australia, many Australians remained ignorant that the nation’s Constitution still reflected the outdated, eighteenth-century views of its founding fathers towards Aboriginal people. When it was drafted in 1901, one of the concerns was that, by including Aboriginal people in a census, those states that had large Aboriginal populations, like Queensland and Western Australia, could be allocated more House of Representative seats in parliament, and possibly receive extra per capita funds from the Commonwealth.
To overcome this problem the Constitution prohibited the counting of Aboriginal people – the country’s first inhabitants – in ‘reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth’.
There was another provision in the original Constitution that was also discriminatory towards Aboriginal people. Its section 51(xxvi), in practical terms, meant that ‘special laws’ for people of the Aboriginal race were made by the states; so for the next sixty years the welfare of Aboriginal people was under the control of state governments, like Queensland with its draconian Aboriginal Protection Act.
As other ethnic-minority and marginalised groups worldwide began achieving some success in campaigns for their civil rights, community activists in Australia were prompted to wage their own public campaigns to improve the conditions of Aboriginal people. Many believed progress would be achieved only if the federal rather than state governments had some control over the policies that had for so long discriminated against Aboriginal and Islander Australians. Without the federal government taking a lead policy role, some argued, the basic health and socio-economic outcomes of Indigenous Australians would continue to vary greatly throughout the country, depending on which state they happened to live in.
A national referendum was held in May 1967, giving Australians the opportunity to decide whether to remove the discriminatory references to Aboriginal people from the Constitution. In the lead-up to the referendum, those campaigning in favour of constitutional change sought to appeal to the public’s conscience, with posters bearing the slogan ‘Right wrongs, write yes for Aborigines on 27 May’. In an historic result, the overwhelming majority of Australians did agree to the constitutional changes.
Many in the community, including the media, believed that Aboriginal people would now enjoy equal rights and freedoms, and their living conditions would significantly improve. But it was not to be. For several years after the referendum the federal government failed to use its new constitutional powers. Although 90.77 per cent of Australian voters had supported the removal of the two discriminatory sections of the nation’s Constitution, the federal government didn’t seize this remarkably positive moment to effect change, leaving many greatly disappointed. But other community leaders understood that the massive ‘Yes’ vote was an important symbol, and capitalised on this goodwill by continuing grassroots campaigning for the civil rights of Aboriginal Australians.
I didn’t realise this was what the so-called Aboriginal Referendum of 1967 was about; otherwise, I wouldn’t have got my hopes up. Without having anyone to explain it to me, I blindly relied on the word of others. I can now see that most people back then were just as confused and misinformed as me. When the results of the referendum became known, people, including me, misunderstood that the changes to the Constitution meant blackfullas would ‘soon be free’ and would have ‘the same rights’ as everyone else. But this wasn’t the case.
What I didn’t understand then, but have come to learn now, was despite the outcome of the national referendum, the state and territory parliaments throughout Australia would continue to have power to make laws for Aboriginal people living in their state. Because the Aboriginal Protection Act was a state law, and not a federal one, the Queensland Government would continue to control and place restrictions on my life until the law was changed.
I can now appreciate that the 1967 referendum was an important symbol that eventually prompted change in government policy, but, in 1967, the referendum had little impact on my day-to-day life. I was a young adult then – twenty-one years of age – and yet, I was still considered a ‘ward of the state’. Unlike other Australians, we blackfullas were considered not capable of making our own decisions, and therefore had to remain ‘under the care and protection’ of the Queensland Government simply because of our Aboriginality. For all the hoopla surrounding the all-important Aboriginal Referendum, it simply came and went, with no immediate or obvious change to my life.
I was told that, at this time the federal government’s White Australia Policy still existed, in some form, until it was progressively dismantled in 1973. The aim of the policy was to try to keep Australia ‘white’ by denying entry to non-English-speaking migrants. The policy favoured migrants from Britain so as to retain the country’s British character, and made it difficult for people from other ethnic backgrounds to migrate and become Australian citizens. This helps explain why many in the mainstream community, especially the older set, had strong views about anyone who didn’t quite fit the white Australian mould.
Even African-American soldiers from the United States during the Second World War had difficulty entering the country. As thousands of US personnel arrived to set up temporary outposts, the Advisory War Council to the Australian prime minister decided that no black American troops would be accepted in Australia as it could affect ‘the maintenance of the White Australia Policy in the post-war settlement’. Prime Minister John Curtin relented and eventually allowed African-American soldiers to enter the country, along with the rest of their troop. But the black soldiers’ movements weren’t without restrictions. Those based in Brisbane had boundaries and night curfews similar to local blackfullas.
What do you mean by boundaries? Were there boundaries in the city for blackfullas?
Yes, this was especially so during the 1940s. During the day, Aboriginal people were allowed into Brisbane’s central business district but at nightfall a city curfew was imposed, so that any blackfullas caught walking the streets after dark were questioned by the police. I was told that the northern boundary was near Boundary Street, which runs through the inner-city suburb of Spring Hill. Then across the river on the other side of the city was the southern border of the curfew area.
A mural marks old curfew line, in Boundary Street, Brisbane
Wow, it’s so hard to imagine that such blatant discrimination on the basis of colour alone was accepted just like that. I didn’t know any of this.
Not many people do. I didn’t even know myself until my birth mother – your grandmother, Nana Mace – warned me when I first arrived in Brisbane to work. I would sometimes go and visit her on my days off. I felt I could learn something from her – those old people had a wealth of knowledge, built up from their own life experiences as well as learning from their Elders when they were young themselves.
When did the police stop enforcing the boundaries?
I’m not sure if there was ever an official announcement from the government, declaring the boundaries ‘open’. Instead, over time, perhaps by the early 1970s, the boundaries were enforced less by the authorities; but certainly when I arrived in Brisbane in 1966, there were places in the city where we knew we couldn’t go.
Police detectives from the Special Branch unit monitored the movements of blackfullas. Our nickname for them was ‘The Demons’ or ‘Ds’.
They’d cruise the streets in the Black Maria, an unmarked black van, spying on us as we went about our business inside the city’s perimeters. We always had to be on our best behaviour, for The Demons were never far away. Although the Ds wore plain clothes rather than police uniforms, blackfullas picked them out a mile away: they all wore the same black felt hat. Nana Mace and the other old people told me to look out for the hats. Nothing much got past those old folk. They knew how to survive and make the most out of life in the outside world.
The roads still bear the name Boundary Street today. There are some activists in the community who want to rename them but I prefer the names remain. Each day that I cross over Boundary Street on my way into the city for work, I’m reminded of ‘how far my family has come’.
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