Gary Foley on history, Black Power and idealism

Gary Foley. Photo: Glenn Lockitch.

[The following is an abridged version of Gary Foley’s speech to the huge Melbourne Invasion Day on January 26.]

Look at this! This takes me back a long way. I think you’ve certainly outdone last year. This is a great crowd and I congratulate those who organised it. I haven’t seen a crowd like this since the 1970s in the heyday of the Aboriginal political movement.

And speaking of the heyday of the Aboriginal political movement, on a day like this it’s probably important to remember some of the history on this day that goes way back.

As a professor of history, I don’t like pulling rank on you folks but my thing is history. I spent the first part of my life like some of the young people here today making history. Halfway through my life, I realised that white academic historians were distorting and presenting a false representation of the history that I had been part of. That’s why very late in life — I was almost 50 years old — I went to the University of Melbourne and studied history.

I studied history at the University of Melbourne because that’s where I considered some of the worst of the academic historians were distorting our history. One of my mentors during that period of my life spoke here earlier today; he’s probably out there somewhere. Good on you, Tony Birch. But one of the reasons I studied history was to start to present a more accurate presentation of the history that I had been part of, and in the process of doing that I came to understand much more about some of the history that had preceded me.

In the late 1960s to early 1970s, a great Black uprising that started in Redfern and in Fitzroy led to a great renaissance in the Aboriginal political resistance. Our heroes at that point in time were those that had gone before: the Jack Pattens, the Bill Onuses, the Marge Tuckers, who had been responsible for the 1938 day of mourning, when William Cooper established once and for all that Aboriginal people considered this day to be a day of mourning and Invasion Day.

In 1972, a stupid Australian Prime Minister called “Silly” Billy McMahon — luckily most of you people here today are too young to remember just what an incompetent fool Billy McMahon was — decided on Australia Day, Invasion Day January 26, 1972 — to make a big grand statement about Aboriginal land rights. He said: “My government will never grant Aboriginal land rights.”

To say that on a day that was so sensitive to Aboriginal people was a stupid move on his part. And it led to, that night in Canberra, four young men going down and setting up a protest on the lawns of Parliament House, which eventually grew into the Aboriginal Embassy.

In 1972, with the Black Power movement and the Aboriginal Embassy, we had Australian politicians shitting themselves, running for cover. They feared the movement we had created. And the movement that we had created was like this. I can see it today. Look at the numbers here today. The government cannot ignore this sort of protest; cannot ignore these sort of numbers.

Some of the older people here today will also remember one of the last times we saw big marches like this in Melbourne.

In the late 1960s it was against the Vietnam War and those marches led to a change, not only in government but in government policy. If we keep mobilising these sorts of numbers, governments cannot ignore us.

The last thing I want to say about this particular day, January 26, was the next time after 1972 when there was a resurgence in the Aboriginal resistance was on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the invasion, the so-called Bicentennial, mostly based in Sydney.

The Bicentennial was seriously opposed by Aboriginal people from all over Australia. And on that day on January 26, 1988, the biggest march of Aboriginal people in Australian history occurred in Sydney in opposition to this day, to the celebrations that were going on as part of the Bicentennial. So this day has got a strong, strong thing in my memory.

I’m just looking — the march seems to be still coming. This is extraordinary. I’ve heard somebody say 60,000. Pat yourselves on the back folks. This is great!

The last thing I want to say to you all is the importance of maintaining this feeling here today. In 1938 the people who gathered were a small gathering of idealists. They passionately believed in their cause. In 1972 the numbers of people that were turning out in support of the Black Power movement were also idealists; people who believed in bringing about serious change in not only their own community but in the broader Australian community.

In the 1970s, the Black Power movement set up much of what you see today in terms of Aboriginal organisation: health services, legal services, things like that. But it’s important not just to have an understanding of the dates in your memory as history; it’s also important to think seriously about politics and history and how maybe some of those organisations that were created by the idealists are no longer run by idealists, and you’ve got to think about those nuances of history. You’ve got to educate yourself more about the whole history of the Aboriginal resistance because it will strengthen you.

Whether you are a blackfella here today or whether you are one of the numerous non-Aboriginal supporters here today, I urge you to learn more about the history of Australia. Learn why and how the first ever Aboriginal political organisation in this country was set up in 1924 by Aboriginal followers of Marcus Garvey.

Now, this is the sort of history you don’t get taught in school. This is the sort of history that you need to make an effort to educate yourself about so that you’ve got a greater understanding next year when we turn out here.

When 100,000 people turn out here next year you’ll be able to educate that extra 40,000 people about the serious true meaning of what today is all about and what the history of the Aboriginal resistance has been.

Again I congratulate the organisers of this march. I can see standing up here in this truck the success of what has been organised for today. I congratulate not only the organisers but every person here for turning up and I’ll see you all next year when you bring all your grandmothers and the others with you and we get 100,000 people here. Thank you.

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