Mum Shirl: fighter for Aboriginal rights

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Mum Shirl: fighter for Aboriginal rights

"Mum Shirl" was born Colleen Shirley Perry on November 22, 1924, at Cowra, into what many whites accepted as preordained penury. Even the two surnames she bore were borrowed from an alien culture — Perry from Perry's Circus; her husband, Darcy Smith, was assigned his name as a boxing pseudonym. Her grandfather's proud traditional name, Boney, was destined to be consigned to oblivion.

Her birth date and birthplace silently mark the centenary of the awful tragedy for her tribe, the Wiradjuri. One hundred years before, Governor Thomas Brisbane proclaimed martial law, which virtually amounted to open season on the Wiradjuri tribe.

In excess of 100 blacks, most of them women and children, lay dead. William Cox, Senior, a pastoralist with impeccable family connections and impeccable British manners, called on the 49th Regiment to "shoot all the blacks and manure the ground with their carcasses". No charges were ever laid, no official account given.

Shirley Perry was born into the unrelenting sorrow and grieving of her tribe. In addition, to be born at Erambie Mission in 1924 was to experience the full brunt of the suffocating power and control of the dreaded Aboriginal Protection Board.

Mum Shirl carried in her inner spirit the undilutable memories of her race. In the face of that ongoing, ever-present pain, she stood as one for whom memory was a sacred trust. That is why it is sickening to hear some whites speak as if time of itself should erase the past, particularly when they have done nothing to ease it.

The impatient desire that some people express to get things over with is in itself a sign of deep insecurity. We are governed today as if reality itself were subject to a sunset clause. While [the government] might mount some sort of case that they are not now physically bashing blacks, it remains quite clear that while they govern in shameful dishonour and in incredible insensitivity, the same pathology of William Cox, Senior, lives on.

Guilt, as Pat Dodson rightly says, is a wasted emotion. But shame is another matter. We must in all honesty and shame admit that none of the benefits that we now enjoy were acquired except at the horrific expense of massacre and unbelievable grief and starvation, including snatching of children of Aboriginal people in the past and selfish grabbing of entitlements from Aboriginal people today. We must accept the shame that clearly identifiable pathologies of the coloniser are re-emerging today.

Kooris are great forgivers. That is why there is a profound poignancy in the contrast that our present government cannot find the heart to offer them an official word of apology.

Shirley stayed unremittingly and derisively on the hard edge of political awareness. She stood out from the crowd in that she was incredibly like every single individual in the crowd. [She had] a capacity to comfort the afflicted but never suggested that she would not afflict the comfortable. She chose to stay in the street world of Aboriginal life.

There was a memorable event late in 1980, the first National Conference of Catholic Social Workers. Mum Shirl was not invited. No Aboriginals were invited. So she gathered a group of friends and gate-crashed.

As the invited guests returned from dinner to the auditorium, where there were a dozen tables with white tablecloths and half empty beer bottles, Shirley went to the microphone and tried to address them, but the guests went on talking. Shirley then proceeded, one by one, to tear tablecloths from the tables. The bottles crashed and rolled and splashed. The bishops were the first to make themselves scarce.

It was the stark phenomenon of blacks dying in custody and the continuing pain of the "stolen generations" which Mum Shirl always knew in her bones that caused her to confront the harsh reality at a personal level. She recognised early the promise of the youth and would burst with pride in those taking on the struggle.

From the time she was 16, she set herself against the whole draconian system and responded to the excruciating solitude of prisoners; by her incessant visiting, she gave them solace. For hundreds of prisoners, black and white, her visits were the only ones to look forward to.

A life-size seated image of Mum Shirl was done by the sculptor Bill Clements, a personal friend. It ought to be a permanent reminder to this city of over-dogs of what she meant to the underdogs.

She made no distinction among people. Her deepest heart was for the "goomies", those addicted to white lady, or methylated spirits. She took in and lived with their terror, described by the Aboriginal poet Jack Davis:

"We are tired of the benches, our beds in the park
We welcome the sundown that heralds the dark.
White Lady Methylate, keep us warm and from crying
Hold back the hate, and hasten the dying."

She intuitively recognised the same desperate terror in the hordes of Aboriginal people in Australian jails. She grieved with an inconsolable grief when Robert Walker finally found death more attractive, took a sock and hanged himself.

The number of children who once called her "Mummy" is beyond counting, the only mothering one they were ever allowed to know.

Therein lay the real miracle of Mum Shirl, that while never trying to block out the pain, she held on to hope, and thereby held out hope, especially to the young ones.

There is hardly a street in the whole of South Sydney where Shirley did not once rent a house, where a dozen little black faces looked out on an alien, sometimes hostile, world, where Shirley offered a safe and secure shelter.

In the after-hours from 5pm to 9am she responded indefatigably to incessant emergency calls. The film Once were warriors gives just some intimation of what Shirley knew by heart. I recall nights when I would call her five times to meet some emergency; unfailingly she gave this unpaid service.

There was always the aftermath to the incidents of the night, and Shirley would be there without fail to defend the powerless against overwhelming power — whether that power was that of the police, the legal system, the bureaucracy of hospitals or capitalism in all its forms, all designed to cripple blacks. Here was this extraordinary defiant woman giving warning that if they tried to crush the little ones, they'd have her and her handbag to contend with.

It was at that point when her heart might break that the kindness of nature took over and gently lifted her into a kind sleep that shielded her from further grieving.

Laurie Perry, her beloved brother, was acquitted of a trumped-up charge, but not before he had suffered a stroke and a heart attack and had lost his speech. Now he was dead. Her beloved Diana too, the pride and joy of her life, was dead. A heart can hold only so much grief.

"In the ghetto streets of Redfern
prowls the battler on the dole
the Blacks still free come morning
who survived the night patrol
and paddy wagon coffins
who only ply their trade
where politicians don't count votes
police training grounds are made"
(Kevin Gilbert)

[Abridged from the address by Ted Kennedy on May 4 at the funeral for Shirley Smith.]