How segregation was smashed in southern NSW
How segregation was smashed in southern NSW

In late 1961, a group of activists founded the South Coast Aboriginal Advancement League to fight against Aboriginal oppression on the south coast of New South Wales. Their successful struggle, largely hidden from the popular record, is an impressive chapter in Australian working-class history.

On the south coast, segregation and exploitation went hand in hand. Pea and bean farming, which was at its peak at the time, relied on seasonal labour. Pickers, recruited from poor Aboriginal families, worked twelve-hour days for measly pay of £5 a week, pitiful in comparison to the minimum wage at the time, which, for eight-hour days, was meant to be £14 a week.

Aboriginal picker Jeff Tungai, quoted in Mike Donaldson’s 2017 collection A History of Aboriginal Illawarra, Volume 2, quipped that, at Bodalla (about 250 kilometres south of Wollongong), Black labourers worked so hard for their white boss that they had “bought him a truck, tractor and God knows what else”, and that they’d “buy him a helicopter soon”. 

Oppression conditioned every aspect of life for Aboriginal workers, both out in the field and in the community when the workday finally ended. Banned from staying in guesthouses or attending schools, Black families doing seasonal work had to sleep in railway stations, parks, tents or hay bales on the outskirts of town. Black workers couldn’t even buy a pint at the local pub at the end of an arduous workday. 

Anti-Aboriginal racism on the south coast was a many-headed hydra: wage gaps, exclusion from housing and schools, segregation of services, land disputes and a swathe of other issues including the detested Aboriginal Welfare Board. The Welfare Board exercised nearly total control over Aboriginal people’s lives, including taking children from their mothers. It would take a determined struggle to challenge this state of affairs. 

The impetus for the formation of the South Coast Aboriginal Advancement League came from communist agitator Joe Howe. He had been inspired after working alongside Kungarakan man and wharfie activist Joe McGinness, the president of the League’s Cairns branch. Howe returned to Wollongong intent on starting a branch in the city.

One of the people he sought out was Bobby Davis, a Dharawal man and a union comrade from his time on the wharves. The wharves at the time were a hotbed of radicalism, and the Communist Party had considerable influence. For Aboriginal workers like Davis, union activity was a rare experience of power as an oppressed person. 

Both Bobby and his wife Mary helped establish the League. The Coomaditchie Mission where they lived did not even have houses on it. Until the League was able to win the construction of six houses on the mission, the Davises lived out of their car, together with two children.

Another founder was Fred Moore, now the last surviving founder of the League’s south coast branch. Moore had a reputation as a militant in the coalfields, where he’d worked since he was 14 years old. His dad had fought against the New Guard, a mass fascist organisation, during the Great Depression, and in 1957 Fred had travelled to Sydney to be part of the launch of a petition to amend the constitution to remove the explicitly discriminatory clauses.

Alongside Howe, Moore and the Davises, five women—Olga Booth, Gladys Douglas, Dolly Henry, Linda Kennedy and Rhonda Delaney—made up the activist core of the League. The women faced extreme discrimination and the threat of having their children abducted by the state at the height of the Stolen Generations. 

But they persisted. In his oral history of the period, recorded by the Wollongong City Library, Moore said despite the fact that, and perhaps because, they had so much to lose, the “great strength of [the League] lay with the women”. And as Mary Davis’ son recalled to Mike Donaldson, his mother “was never shy, never scared or intimidated” in the pursuit of equality. 

The leadership of the League was working-class and viewed organised labour as a crucial weapon in the fight for equality. Trade union support could give fragmented and disorganised groups of Aboriginal activists much needed cohesion. They also understood that workers not only had an unrivalled power to force social change, but also that workers could be convinced that they shared a common struggle with Aboriginal people.

The South Coast Labour Council was renowned for its militancy and willingness to take political stances. Rooted in the steel and mining industries, and on the wharves, Wollongong’s unions had a notable Communist Party presence, and participated in campaigns against nuclear weapons, and later in solidarity campaigns with Vietnam, South Africa and Chile. Workers viewed their industrial power not only as something to use to improve their own working lives, but also to improve society as a whole.

In August 1961, just before the south coast branch of the League formed, Bobby Davis and the Labour Council had played a key role in opposing the eviction of Aboriginal people from Hill 60 at Port Kembla. A stop-work meeting of Kembla wharfies had unanimously resolved to oppose the evictions, and the Wollongong City Council was forced not just to back down, but to construct permanent housing there.

One of the early victories of the League was winning the right for Aboriginal people to drink in Port Kembla and Wollongong pubs. It wasn’t just the racism of individual publicans that they were up against. In NSW, it was illegal for pubs and cafes to serve Indigenous people; doing so could result in a venue losing its licence. 

As in the United States civil rights movement, Aboriginal people staged sit-ins—demanding to be served in segregated bars and shops and refusing to leave when asked. Unlike in the United States, though, on the south coast the intervention of organised workers contributed to an impressive pace of desegregation and generated a groundswell of support for equal rights.

The key advantage that the League had was its support among unionised workers, who have a power that ordinary direct action doesn’t—they can stop the supply of stock that businesses need to make money. Because of the backing of the workers in the supply chain, the League could simply ban deliveries to stubborn business owners and force them to desegregate. As Fred Moore told Mike Donaldson, “We just wouldn’t deliver any more kegs, that was it”. 

Early successes in Wollongong inspired the League’s expansion further south. In March 1962, a new branch was set up in Nowra with the help of local Aboriginal women such as Norma Sharman and Communist Party member Harry Hesse. Segregation in Nowra and Bega was more severe than in the city, and shocking even to the League’s activists. For example, Aboriginal women could not even buy or try on dresses for themselves, and instead had to ask white women to go to shops and buy on their behalf.

Remarkably, because of the League’s work, Nowra’s complete desegregation was achieved by 1964, a full year before Charlie Perkins’ famous freedom rides set off from Sydney into western NSW. With the backing of workers up and down the south coast, desegregation happened well before the laws were changed. 

The League’s national activity culminated in the referendum of 1967. In 1958, the national council of the Aborigines Advancement League began campaigning for a referendum to eliminate explicitly racist sections of the constitution. Nine years later, almost 91 percent voted “yes” to empower the federal government to override racist state laws, and to start counting Aboriginal people in the census.

Illawarra miners, spearheaded by Fred Moore and communist activists, were a core base of support for the petition. At Nebo, where Moore was working, all 1,000 workers at the pit (bar the managers) signed on. This was quickly followed by more signatures as well as financial support from other unions up and down the coast. Moore alone collected 2,500 signatures, overwhelmingly from miners, earning him the title of “champion signature collector” in the League’s national newspaper, Smoke Signals.

Seamen played a prominent role too. Bound for Western Australia to retrieve iron ore, they would leave Port Kembla with blank petition sheets, and return with them overflowing with names. 

The Illawarra mines were surprisingly cosmopolitan. At least 42 nationalities were represented in two dozen sites. At one, the workforce included Cypriots, Italians and even Germans who had worked in the Ruhr coalfields, where workers had staged an armed uprising in 1920. Workers who had fought on both sides of the war, some as conscripts in the German army, toiled together in very difficult working conditions. 

Despite the apparent divisions, there was a general sense of solidarity among miners.  “If you stayed together, you had a chance”, Moore said. “But if they could break you up into little groups, they could annihilate you.” This basic tradition of solidarity was an essential aspect of the miners’ support for Aboriginal rights. 

Such was the sensation of the south coast struggle that Aboriginal activists from across the country travelled to the “strong south” looking for support. And support was something they always found. When Gurindji stockmen walked off Wave Hill station in August 1966, they promptly sent a delegation to speak to Illawarra miners. 

So moved were they by the Gurindji, who would stay out on strike for a decade in a watershed land rights struggle, the miners immediately levied themselves to donate to the strike fund. “The union never, ever let up on it, and to this day if the Aboriginals want help, it’s there”, Moore remarked in his 2015 oral history. 

Contrary to the official history, which exalts the importance of smart lawyers and sympathetic politicians to the advancement of Aboriginal rights in the 1960s and 1970s, the reality is that the victories were won by working-class people. Without the efforts of thousands of trade unionists, radicals and Aboriginal people willing to disrupt the functioning of segregation and racial discrimination, none of this would have been possible.

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