The name more Australians should know | NAIDOC WEEK 2017

William Cooper.

It’s a name we should all know, but all too few of us do, especially in Western Australia.

He is the man credited with beginning what we have come to know as NAIDOC Week, a celebration of the Aboriginal people and culture of our nation.

Mr Cooper was born in Victoria about 1860 and as a child was forcibly separated from his parents and made to work as a station-hand and a coachman.

In the late 1870s he converted to Christianity and started on a lifetime’s work to improve the circumstances of Aboriginal people.

Mr Cooper put his talent for language to good use, writing thousands of letters to newspapers and politicians, unsuccessfully petitioning King George V for representation of Aboriginal peoples in Australia’s parliament (his plea was never sent to the palace until former Governor-General Peter Cosgrove presented it to Queen Elizabeth II in a 2014 ceremony).

He was the first to lead a delegation of Aboriginal people to meet an Australian Prime Minister.

Mr Cooper’s fight for a fair go for the world’s downtrodden was not limited to Australian Aboriginals.

He has been honoured at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Memorial in Israel because he organised and led the only public protest against Nazi Germany’s organised persecution of Jews which has become known as Kristallnacht.

A group of campaigners turned up to the German consulate in Melbourne with a petition demanding an end to the “cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany”.

The consulate refused to accept the petition.

In 2010 Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrated the protest at a gala dinner with Kevin Rudd and Julie Bishop.

However, Mr Cooper is most famous for being the father of NAIDOC Week.

In 1938 he organised what he called a Day of Mourning for Aboriginal people, calling the public’s attention to their plight and arguing for change.

Mr Cooper then convinced churches around Australia to hold annual services for Aboriginal people – to call for justice and to celebrate Aboriginal culture and heritage – which in 1955 were moved to July to eventually become NAIDOC Week.

Mr Cooper died in 1941 before he could see what NAIDOC Week would become.

One can’t help but think he would be proud of Mandurah’s 2017 NAIDOC celebration.

Hopefully, he would see how far we have come from the days when he was forced as a child to work against his will or when he was 70 and denied a pension because he was Aboriginal.


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