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The Campaigners

There were thousands of Australians and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who contributed to the overwhelming success of the 1967 referendum. In this section you will meet some of the generous, passionate and committed individuals introduced throughout this exhibition. It is by no means an exhaustive list of the thousands people that were involved.

“The victory of the 1967 referendum was not a change of white attitudes. The real victory was the spirit of hope and optimism which affected blacks all over Australia. We had won something… We were visible, hopeful and vocal."Kath Walker, 1967 Referendum Campaign National Coordinator.

Aboriginal Australian Fellowship (AAF)

Jessie Street

Jessie Street's early activism on behalf of Aboriginal people began in the 1940s when she was working in the Australian Women's Charter movement. She ensured that advancing the status of Indigenous Australians was a core principle of the Charter.

In 1956 the Anti-Slavery Society was considering the plausibility of bringing a case to the United Nations concerning the loss of human rights routinely experienced by Aboriginal Australians. Jessie Street came to Australia to gather relevant information. Faith Bandler, who Street knew through her peace movement work, introduced her to Pearl Gibbs in Sydney. It was during this time Street saw it was now time to change the Australian Constitution.

“Well, I think Lady Jessie Street was the one that introduced the campaign about the referendum. She was the one, and people like Jessie Street had access to different areas of influence, and that helped us deal with the referendum."Joe McGinness on Jessie Street and her role in the referendum campaign

Joe McGinness

Joe McGinness became the first Aboriginal President of the FCAA in 1961. Joe McGinness has claimed that his political education came from the Cairns branch of the WWF, of which he was an active member. He became the secretary of the Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League when it formed in 1959.

Joe held the position of FCAA President for all but one year until the Council's demise in 1978. Joe was well regarded as a chairman who was attentive to different points of view and who led by example. In 1967 during the Vote Yes campaign for a referendum Joe travelled all over Australia putting the case for a 'Yes' vote. He also pointed out the importance of land to Aboriginal people at annual FCAATSI conferences and shared his awareness of the complexity of land politics.

“I did a bit of travelling around. I went to all the capital cities bar Western Australia, I think. Adelaide and Hobart, the referendum meeting that I addressed in Hobart was sponsored by the Bishop of Tasmania. I'll tell you about an experience I had. One of the funniest ones was going down to Devonport to address the church congregation on Sunday night about our plight and why we wanted a referendum and after the old priest in charge introduced me, they elevated me to the pulpit. I was talking from the pulpit - a bloody heathen like me talking to the congregation! - and the minister from Hobart was convening the meeting. There wasn't such a great crowd there, but he was introducing me: 'Here's Mr McGinness talking about the referendum coming up and Aboriginal rights. There isn't that many here to hear him but the cream of Tasmania is here', he says (general laughter). And while I was there I went to the Tasmanian University and addressed the staff and the students there, see. That's how we got our message across. Well others did it too, you know. I'm not the only one. We had to hand out pamphlets. Even Paul Keating handed out how-to-vote cards.”Joe McGinness

Faith Bandler

Faith Bandler is well known for her active role in publicising the YES case for the Aboriginal question in the 1967 Referendum.

A key meeting with Aboriginal activist Pearl Gibbs in the early 1950s led to Faith Bandler's involvement in establishing, with Pearl and others, a new organisation to work for Aboriginal rights, the Sydney-based Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship.

The Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship began in 1956 and was Bandler's political base for the next 13 years. She worked closely with a number of activists in the Fellowship and when Sydney became the executive headquarters of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) in 1967.

In 1963, Faith Bandler became the New South Wales state secretary of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement representing the interests of Aboriginal people from New South Wales. In 1967, after the federal government had agreed to hold a referendum on the Aboriginal question, Bandler was appointed New South Wales campaign director, a position she fulfilled with energy, skill and enthusiasm. She argued that a YES vote was a vote for equal rights for Aboriginal citizens. Bandler wanted to see Aboriginal Australians accepted as equals, and as 'one people' with white Australians. While this was a strong argument in gaining support for the referendum in 1967, it was less popular after this landmark vote when Indigenous Australians strove to assert their right to cultural difference.

“I used to get very emotional about it because it possessed me. I became totally obsessed with that campaign. There were times when I would take as many as three meetings in a day. And I did things that I would never have dreamed of doing: like going into a pulpit, talking to church congregations, and putting up with people whose ideas were totally foreign to me. And all I wanted was their vote (chuckles). Of course it came about because, you could say the referendum was the result of good team work.”Faith Bandler

Pearl Gibbs

Pearl Gibbs' was actively involved in the setting up and running of a number of bodies including the Aborigines Progressive Association, Australian Aborigines' League and Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, which she co-founded with Faith Bandler, who paid tribute to Pearl in 1996.

Pearl fought for Aboriginal representation on the Aborigines' Welfare Board and was appointed to this Board herself in 1954. Her lifelong work for justice and citizenship rights for her people is perhaps especially striking when we consider that her fair skin meant that she could have 'passed' as a white woman and enjoyed a much easier life than the one she chose.

"I knew Pearl [Gibbs] very well and she belted me along. She never gave me a day's peace when she was in Sydney. And I thought, 'Well this can't be for nothing.' You know, 'this woman knows what she's doing - it can't be for nothing."Faith Bandler on Pearl Gibbs’ influence on her during the 1967 referendum

Pastor Doug Nicholls

At the time of the investigation into the state of people living in the Warburton Ranges, Doug Nicholls was founding pastor at the Fitzroy Church of Christ Aborigines' Mission. He was well known and loved by Aboriginal people living in Melbourne. As a result of his sporting successes, especially as a winger for Fitzroy in the Victorian Football League (VFL), he was also well known and respected among football-following Melbournians.

In 1958, when the Aborigines Advancement League was formed, Pastor Doug Nicholls became its field officer. Over the next few years he established Aboriginal hostels for both boys and girls coming to Melbourne to seek work, a holiday program for Aboriginal children and, with his wife Gladys, was constantly engaged in providing food, shelter and emotional support for any who sought their help.

Nicholls campaigned to assist the people of the Warburton Ranges, to save Lake Tyers from closure and to amend the Constitution to empower the Commonwealth government to take responsibility for Aboriginal affairs. He encouraged his people to become politically active and played an active role in the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (later the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders), throughout the 1960s.

Although Doug worked effectively with non-Aboriginal supporters in the Aborigines' Advancement League and in the Federal Council he supported the amendments proposed by Barrie Pittock to empower Aboriginal and Islander members of the Federal Council. When these motions were lost Doug joined with Kath Walker to form a new organisation, the National Tribal Council, and accepted a leadership role in this organisation.

Bert Groves

As a part-time member (1950-54) of the Aborigines Welfare Board, he fought hard to improve the conditions in which Aborigines lived on government stations and reserves throughout the State. In 1952 he was appointed a Justice of the Peace. An accomplished speaker, he was frequently invited to address church and service organizations on Aboriginal issues, and helped in leadership training courses run by the Department of Tutorial Classes at the University of Sydney.

In 1956 Groves became first president of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship (formed in Sydney to bring together Aborigines and Whites); in 1958 he was a founding member of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement. As president of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, Bert Groves spoke strongly at the 1958 Adelaide meeting at which the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement was formed, opposing the government's policy of assimilation, which he likened to extermination. He argued that assimilation implied the disappearance of Aboriginal people as a separate cultural group and their physical absorption into European Australia. Speaking for the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, Groves told the conference that the word 'integration' better defined the aims of his organisation. The success of the campaign for the 1967 referendum which gave the Commonwealth government power to legislate on Aboriginal matters was a major victory for Groves.

"We have a long way to go but now a start has been made. We worked hard for many years and presented more than 2,000,000 signatures asking for this referendum, and now Australia has passed it overwhelmingly. I see today a new spirit of understanding throughout the Commonwealth, a new spirit of real democracy.”Big Smiles for the ’Yes’ Vote, The Australian Women's Weekly, 28 June 1967.

Stan Davey

Stanley Davey was instrumental in forming the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) in 1958, and was the general secretary for its first 10 years. He travelled hundreds of miles around Australia to personally investigate reports of injustice, often hitchhiking if funds were short. He brought a creative intelligence to the question of cultural difference as illustrated in this interview extract.

One guy [Daymbalipu Mununggurr from Yirrkala] we had come to the Canberra conference, and I said, 'You'd better come down and have a look at our open cut mining at Yallourn. Come down and see the open cut mining at Yallourn. That's what you're going to face when you go back to your open cut with the bauxite mining which is opening up. Anyway he got permission to come down with us and we hosted him down to Melbourne and sent him down to Yallourn and said, 'Well that's what your country's going to look like! 'Oh he was just shocked. And unfortunately he was not strong enough to do anything about it when he went back but of course we were not (chuckles) very well favoured by the Church at that particular stage who were conceding that the mining companies could proceed.

In 1968 Stan resigned from the VAAL and FCAATSI to work in the field amongst communities in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. 

Chicka Dixon

Chicka Dixon campaigned for the 1967 Referendum as part of FCAATSI and attended its annual conferences during the 1960s and, in 1970, was convenor of the Trade Union committee of the Federal Council. Chicka was also an active member of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs and as Manager in 1967, provided surety for men charged with petty crimes.

Jack and Jean Horner

Jack Horner and his wife Jean joined the newly-formed Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship in 1957 after attending the launch of the Fellowship's petition campaign in the Sydney Town Hall. Jack was the hardworking Honorary Secretary in the Fellowship from 1958 to 1966, during which time he came to understand conditions of life for Aboriginal people in New South Wales and campaigned for the repeal of the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Act 1935. Jack became involved in the federal movement for Aboriginal rights from from 1959, becoming vice-president of the FCAA, believing that the strength of FCAATSI, as it became in 1964, lay in its alliance of blacks and whites opposing social and legislative racial discrimination.

Jean Horner was for many years the treasurer of both the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship and FCAATSI. She successfully sought donations to sponsor Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives to travel to Canberra for annual FCAATSI meetings. Jean Horner's skills as a treasurer were noticed during her time in that position in the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship and when the call for a treasurer for the FCAA went out in 1961, Jean was nominated. She accepted and held the position for nine years. She played a crucial role in the development of FCAATSI as a financially independent body at a critical time when money was needed to sponsor Aboriginal and Islander representativers to travel to Canberra for annual FCAATSI meetings. 

Charles Perkins

Charles Perkins first attended the FCAA annual conference in Brisbane in 1961. He spoke with passion about his visit to Mungana reserve where he saw a double standard in action: attractive homes for the white staff and tin shanties for the Aboriginal residents.

In 1965 Perkins, one of two Aboriginal students at the University of Sydney (the other was Gary Williams), was keen to find a way to publicise the Aboriginal cause. This led to the formation of Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA) and the decision to organise a bus tour of western New South Wales towns. Perkins' role in SAFA and the bus tour that became known as The Freedom Ride propelled him to national prominence as an Aboriginal leader and spokesman.

In 1965 he became the manager of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs in Sydney, and in 1969 he moved to Canberra to begin work in the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, which was set up by Prime Minister Harold Holt. 

“And when the results came out, you know, everybody was so happy about it, and just couldn’t believe the results and we thought, ‘well, this is definitely going to be a watershed in race relations in the country.”Charles Perkins

Parliamentarians

Gordon Bryant

Gordon Bryant entered federal parliament as the Labor member for the Melbourne seat of Wills in 1955 and attended a meeting in 1957 at which the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (VAAL) was formed, accepting the position of President. The following year he went to the Adelaide meeting of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) as an observer, returning with a determination to work for full citizenship rights for Aborigines.

Gordon Bryant was an office-bearer in the VAAL and in the FCAA from 1957 until his appointment as the first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1973. He played a key role in FCAA's early years when his Wills electoral office - with its parliamentary phone account - became the communication hub, with members of the executive from other states being telephoned on meeting nights. Gordon was an effective co-ordinator and communicator, keeping in contact with Joe McGinness, the president of the Federal Council, in Cairns; Faith Bandler, the New South Wales state secretary in Sydney; as well as people from Adelaide, Perth and northern Australia.

Gordon visited Yirrkala in 1963 with parliamentary colleague Kim Beazley, and successfully argued for the establishment of a Select Committee to examine the grievances of the Yolngu people when their land was threatened by mining. He organised the national Vote Yes campaign for the 1967 Referendum which gave the Commonwealth the power to pass laws for Aboriginal and Islander Australians as a group. He also worked towards the establishment of the principle of equal wages and equal access to social service benefits.

“The vote is an overwhelming endorsement of the view that it is time for material action. The Government cannot hide behind constitutional inhibitions, nor can it hide behind a faith in public apathy. This vote represents a great national demand for action.”Gordon Bryant, The Australian, 29 May 1967.

Kim Beazley

Kim Beazley retained a commitment to Indigenous affairs throughout his time in the Australian parliament from 1945 to 1977.

As the member for Fremantle, he ensured the inclusion of Aboriginal land rights in the Labor Party platform in 1951, and in 1952 gave one of the few speeches in the parliament on Aboriginal rights since Coolgardie member Hugh Mahon in 1901.

In 1963 Beazley and fellow parliamentarian Gordon Bryant prepared a report into the bauxite-mining proposal at Yirrkala and both were prominent in the decade of campaigning for the 1967 referendum.

“The massive vote was not a vote for correcting the grammar of the Constitution. It was an explosion of compassion and concern on the part of the Australian people.”Kim Beazley, The Canberra Times, 1 June 1967

WC Wentworth

The Hon. W C (Bill) Wentworth entered the Federal Parliament as the Liberal Party Member for Mackellar. While the federal government was under pressure to amend the clauses of the Constitution that referred to Aboriginal people in the mid-1960s, Bill Wentworth moved a Constitution Alteration (Aborigines) Bill as a private member which suggested the addition of a new section to prevent the Commonwealth and states from making or maintaining laws which were racially discriminatory. It was not passed, but Wentworth recalls this move as a strategic one on his part:

"I can't recall very much about that private member's bill] except it was part of the tactics I was using to get the party to agree to tack the Aboriginal question onto the 1967 Senate Referendum. And I lobbied very much inside the party and I forced it through the party room."

The federal government did decide to hold a referendum on the Aboriginal question. Wentworth discusses here his strategy of linking this move with a proposed referendum concerning the relationship between the number of parliamentarians in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, which the government was keen to get passed.

"At that time there was a Senate referendum proposed, and I induced the party to have the Aboriginal question tacked on, almost as an addendum to that Senate referendum… And after a great deal of propaganda, which would have been built on the activities that I'd had in the party room in the five or six years previously, I was able to get the government to consent to the tacking on of this Aboriginal question to the Senate referendum, and as you know it was overwhelmingly passed."

Trade unions

Trade union vote yes ad

The trade union movement played an important role in the lead-up to the referendum announcement, as well as the actual Referendum campaign. Many members of FCAA as well as the AAF had been long-standing trade unionists, so it naturally followed that the fight for a more equal Australia would be supported. Joe McGinness explained that ‘without the support of trade unions and a few parliamentarians who believed in the principle of a fair go’ it was unlikely that Aboriginal matters would have received such public traction.

Churches

Jack Horner put it best when he emphasised the roles played by the churches in the federal movement in Aboriginal affairs.

"Can I just say a bit more about the Council? The Australian Council of Churches joined the Federal Council just about the time of the Referendum. Frank Engel brought the land rights issue to 1964 and he was the first one to take it on. And at the 1967 Referendum I went round to the Australian Council of Churches. They gave me a complete list of all the heads of churches with their addresses. And I wrote to all of them. And because they had to take part in it - you see it was a referendum - everybody had to take part. So all the churches had to understand what it was all about. And this meant that - I think - for the first time churches like the Russian and Greek Orthodox - people like that - were coming to Aboriginal affairs for the very first time and they didn't know anything about it before. And so after that they took a more formal interest. And they were very positive after that. We'd be able to get from them, help in helping the Aboriginal people at Gove get their land rights there. They formed a Methodist Aboriginal Committee in Melbourne which helped the people in Gove."Jack Horner
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AIATSIS acknowledges the traditional owners of country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, culture and community.

We pay our respects to elders past and present.