William Cooper set the pace for social justice

Economists have GDPs. Workers have KPIs. Athletes have PBs. But what about social justice activists? Could there be a Social Justice Measure (SJM) for how much a person cares about justice?


If such a calculation was possible, I wonder if the unit of measurement might be the kilometre, and the measure might be something like, ‘How far would a person walk in support of a cause that wasn’t theirs, for people they would never meet, in a place they would likely never themselves see?’

Ten kilometres. That was William Cooper’s SJM 80 years ago, on 6 December 1938, when the 77-year-old Yorta Yorta elder walked ten kilometres to deliver a letter to the German consulate protesting the attacks on Jewish people during Kristallnacht nearly a month earlier.

The terrible events of Kristallnacht had provoked newspaper headlines around the world. Dozens of Jewish people had been killed, Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues had been attacked, and thousands incarcerated in what was a chilling prelude to the Holocaust.

The letter that Cooper and his companions delivered read: ‘On behalf of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia, we wish to have it registered and on record that we protest wholeheartedly at the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government in Germany. We plead that you would make it known to your government and its military leaders that this cruel persecution of their fellow citizens must be brought to an end.’

The message never reached its intended audience — the protesters turned away at the gate. But their point was made. While there were other protests against the rise of Nazism, Cooper’s was the only known privately organised event. Not a government, or a union movement — just a private citizen, deciding to make a stand.

Cooper was already a bona fide leader among his own people even before this protest. He represented Aboriginal communities in northern Victoria and western NSW who had to survive the drought of the 1920s and Great Depression of the 1930s without any government aid. He was a founding secretary of the Australian Aborigines’ League in 1936, and petitioned the King for Aboriginal representation in parliament.

“Cooper saw that the only way we can create a truly flourishing human community is if we see all human beings as part of one global family.”

He even started the Australia Day protest movement. On 26 January 1938, as Australia marked the 150th anniversary of the arrival of British settlers, Cooper organised a Day of Mourning to draw attention to the plight of Indigenous people.

But while these actions are the evidence of a great Australian, it’s the protest on behalf of the Jewish people that establishes the deep conscience that drove Cooper in his campaigning.

It’s perhaps not surprising that people who experience injustice might be most sensitive to injustice when they see it inflicted on others. But those same people could also be forgiven for focusing on their own issues and needs, rather than creating what might seem as a distraction.

At the time of Cooper’s protest, Aboriginal people couldn’t vote. They had faced generations of dispossession and displacement. They suffered poverty and ill health at far worse levels than the rest of Australia. They were denied the dole payments available to other Australians. The children of the Stolen Generations were being taken from their families.

But while those issues remained important, Cooper’s conscience couldn’t ignore the suffering of others across the world. He saw that the only way we can create a truly flourishing human community is if we see all human beings as part of one global family.

The extraordinary story of Cooper’s protest remained virtually unknown for decades, only emerging in the early 2000s thanks to the efforts of Cooper’s descendants. He has since been remembered in the Jewish and Aboriginal community here in Australia, as well as in Israel. Last month, the story was performed as a musical at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.

It was just one small protest, and it had little effect on history. But I wonder if the story is one that should be remembered, and celebrated, far more than it is.

The only way we will tackle the huge global issues of our time — war, poverty, migration and environmental degradation — is to have leaders who are willing to go outside their own spheres, to seek to see the world through the eyes of the most vulnerable and marginalised, to search out those who are most persecuted, and seek to bring their plight to the attention of everyone else around them.

We need a social justice calculus for people of conscience to work towards. We need a measure of just how much we’re willing to sacrifice in order to stand in solidarity with fellow members of the human family. We need people who are willing to walk the distance in support of causes that aren’t theirs, for people they will never meet, in places they will never likely see for themselves.

William Cooper was willing to walk ten kilometres. How far would you walk?

Michael McVeigh is senior editor at Jesuit Communications, publishers of Eureka Street.



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