Newcastle’s radicals and renegades on display

July 22, 2017

RAD Exhibition
Until August 27
Newcastle Museum
Radical Newcastle
Edited by James Bennett, Nancy Cushing & Erik Eklund
New South Publishers, 2015
$39.99

Exhibitions like RAD, now showing at the Newcastle Museum, and Radical Newcastle, the book that inspired it, help each generation of activists remember and learn the lessons of previous struggles.

The exhibition and book look at Newcastle’s history from the perspective of the battler — people such as the Irish revolutionaries sent to work as convict slaves in the coal mines and primitive smelters of Newcastle’s East End in the colony’s earliest days.

Dispossessed from their own country, the Irish convicts were among the involuntary first waves of newcomers who would displace many of the Aboriginal people who lived there.

Each chapter in Radical Newcastle, written by historians and activists, tells a story of how Hunter workers and communities organised themselves through unions and other associations to demand rights, and at times to also fight for “the other”.

Ross Edmonds’ article on the Silkwood dispute is one of my favourite chapters. He tells the story of how Newcastle waterside and maritime workers responded with generosity and solidarity to support a group of Chinese seafarers who asked for their protection in the 1930s.

The Purfleet rent strike is another inspiring slice of history. Ann Curthoys tells of how her mother, Barbara, chanced upon a rent strike by tenants on the Purfleet Aboriginal Mission outside of Taree in the 1950s. This encounter led to the trade union movement supporting the strike. Ongoing bonds were forged between organised workers and Aboriginal communities.

My own chapter on socialist activism in Newcastle, written with Ross Morrow, illustrates how parties such as the now dissolved Communist Party and the Socialist Alliance today, pass on traditions of struggle between generations.

The book’s 30 chapters take an inclusive approach to what it means to be “radical”. It also deals with issues such as environmental protection, fighting government corruption, the 1979 Star Hotel Riot and Women’s Right to Choose.

Such a non-elitist approach to history, told from the perspective of those who have spoken back to the powerful, can generate hysteria from the right.

The Australian, for example, reacted to the publication of Radical Newcastle with the call for a Royal Commission into the teaching of history in schools and universities —presumably because it connected present day activism with the tradition of past struggles.

RAD the exhibition certainly makes that connection through story board panels, a photographic gallery celebrating local “revolutionaries, rebels and renegades” and two walls of posters, some of which I recognised from past paste-ups.

The exhibition, however, is more about intergenerational remembering than nostalgia. As Professor Catharine Coleborne of Newcastle University noted when opening the exhibition on July 11, issues such as the SuperCars race imposed on Newcastle’s historic East End, show that communities must be prepared to continually return to the fray and proudly wear the titles of radical, revolutionary and renegade.

[Steve O’Brien is a long-time Newcastle activist and Socialist Alliance member.]

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