Jack Davis, 1917-2000
By Maureen Sexton
PERTH — Aboriginal activist, playwright, actor and poet Jack Davis died on March 17 after a long illness. He was 83 years old.
Born in Perth in 1917, Jack spent his childhood in Yarloop about 140 kilometres to the south. Jack always had a fascination with words and when he was 10 he preferred a dictionary to a story book.
After his father was killed in an accident when Jack was just out of primary school, Jack moved north in search of work. He worked as an itinerant labourer, windmill man, horse breaker, boundary rider, drover and stockman.
At 14, outraged and indignant at the treatment of Aboriginal people by white landowners, Jack began to write poetry as a means of expression. He was influenced by Worru, whom he met at the Moore River Native Settlement.
Worru came from the same area as Jack's father, and Jack loved to listen to Worru's stories and songs. He began to write Aboriginal words and learned the Bibbulmun language.
The policy at that time was that Aboriginal people were not allowed in the towns after 6pm, but Jack refused to leave the streets and was imprisoned for four days. Over the years, he became further enraged by the injustices of an apartheid system.
Jack returned to Perth, joined the Aboriginal Advancement Council and began agitating for changes in government policies. For five years, he was editor of the Aboriginal periodical Identity and helped many Aboriginal writers. He went on to become a well-known and respected playwright and actor, and continued to write his very moving and popular poetry.
A humanitarian, Jack will always be remembered for his writing about Aboriginal history and culture and for his relentless fight for justice for his people. He gained national and international recognition for his work and made an enormous contribution in helping to bridge the gap between cultures and communities.
Jack was patron of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee. His poem-tribute to John Pat is inscribed on the John Pat Memorial at Fremantle Prison. His book of poetry, John Pat and other Poems, is "Dedicated to Maisie Pat and to all mothers who have suffered similar loss".
How tragic it is that Jack Davis died soon after the death in custody of a 15-year-old Aboriginal boy in the Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre, and at a time when the indigenous imprisonment rate has risen dramatically, Aboriginal deaths in custody have increased, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody's recommendations have been blatantly disregarded, and mandatory sentencing laws have been implemented in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
Jack Davis will be sadly missed and always remembered.