Asia-Pacific, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights

Q&A: ‘Wherever There was Injustice, William Stood Up’

Stephen de Tarczynski interviews KEVIN RUSSELL

MELBOURNE, Jan 25 2011 (IPS) - More than 70 years ago, an elderly Aboriginal man led the only known privately- organized demonstration against Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass), the mass anti-Jewish pogrom across Germany and Austria.

That year, 1938, close to 100 Jews were killed while 36,000 others were interred in Nazi camps, and Jewish property and businesses destroyed.

Then already 77 years old, William Cooper led a march to the German consulate in Melbourne, condemning the treatment of Jews by the Nazi government.

It was a remarkable act of international solidarity by Cooper who, as an Aborigine, faced severe discrimination in his own homeland. Yet it was also in keeping with his character.

By then, Cooper was an experienced activist. Earlier in the decade, he had petitioned King George V to improve the lot of Aborigines. In 1934, Cooper helped found Australia’s first Aboriginal political organization, the Australian Aborigines League.

Cooper continued to campaign for Aboriginal rights until his death in 1941. He was also involved in the first mass strike by Aboriginal people, when residents of the Cummeragunja mission in rural New South Wales state walked off their reserve in 1939 to protest their conditions and treatment.

But Cooper’s efforts have only recently been properly recognized. In Israel, trees have been planted in honour of his stance against the abuse of Jews while Melbourne’s new court complex, the William Cooper Justice Centre, was named in his honour when it opened last October.

In December, Israel once again paid tribute to Cooper when Yad Vashem, Israel’s centre for research and commemoration of the Holocaust, named an academic chair named after him.

Cooper’s great-grandson Kevin Russell travelled to Israel to witness the opening of the Chair for the Study of Resistance During the Holocaust, in tribute to William Cooper, and spoke to IPS about his ancestor’s life and legacy.

Excerpts from IPS correspondent Stephen de Tarczynski’s interview with Kevin Russell: Q: Aborigines were still experiencing overt discrimination in many forms here in Australia when Kristallnacht happened. Does the fact that William Cooper demonstrated at such a time give us some insight into the type of man he was? A: Most definitely. That was towards the end of a very long campaign for justice for many peoples, including his own, the Jews, black Americans, Fijians, the Maoris. Wherever there was injustice, William stood up. That certainly reflects the man that William was and what he stood for.

His biggest message was that we shouldn’t be silent in the face of evil because that leads to even more evil. That’s what was happening around Kristallnacht when everyone was silent. No one was doing anything, yet William chose to act.

If we reflect back to that year of 1938, the Kristallnacht protest was in the first week of December. Earlier that year, as Australians celebrated 150 years of colonization on Australia Day in 1938, William was leading a ‘Day of Mourning’ protest for Aboriginal people, saying ‘we, the indigenous people, the original inhabitants of this land, have nothing to celebrate. While you celebrate 150 years of your colonization of this country, we’ve got nothing to rejoice about. It’s a day of mourning for us. We don’t have rights, we have poor health, are restricted in our movements and denied our language. We’re denied basic human rights.’ He was saying even then that we’ve got nothing to rejoice about.

Q: He obviously saw similarities between the treatment of Jews in Europe, particularly under the Nazis, prior to and during the Second World War and the abuses suffered by indigenous Australians at the same time? A: Without doubt. William had lost his own son during the First World War, so he knew what it was like to have a son die for a country that didn’t recognize him or his son as citizens of that country.

William knew what it was like to be persecuted and oppressed. He saw what conditions were like on Cummeragunja mission and what was happening to our people. He certainly would have recognized the similarities of oppression and persecution. Like I said, wherever there was a wrong, William was the first to stand up and that’s the leadership of the man. He was a visionary and way ahead of his time in so many ways.

Q: You must be very proud of your great-grandfather, who has been honored in Australia and also, most recently, in Israel. But does he get the recognition he deserves? A: That’s the second time I’ve been to Israel when William’s been honoured by the Jewish community. He’s honoured across the world yet in Australia we’re still only learning of who William Cooper was. In the last couple of years there’s certainly been some movement at local and state level of government regarding recognition.

But while I was in Israel I called for federal acknowledgement of the man, for what he tried to achieve in Australia for his own people. And we’ve had backing for that to happen. I know that as we speak there’s a steering committee being formed and a number of ideas as to how his legacy will be honoured. It’s only early days for that but we certainly need to acknowledge the legacy of William Cooper in his own country and in front of his own people.

Q: Why is it important that William Cooper be honoured in Australia and elsewhere? A: Here in Australia we seem to be a leader in multicultural and immigration policies. We have a very multicultural society and William was an ambassador for that as well. Bringing people from different walks of life together, he was a leader in that field. To have something to honour William’s legacy which reflects that – which is what Australia promotes itself as being – would be quite fitting and in tune with what William stood for, with that human element of everyone having equal opportunities and the right to equal citizenship, access to health, education and work opportunities.

Q: And these, I guess, are universal values that could be promoted elsewhere? A: The message is the same and can certainly be adopted at an international level. Many of William’s messages could be used to make the world a better place and a safer place for us all.

 
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