Author’s research: Secrets From The Dust – Australian Aboriginal Civil Rights Movement

In this next post from my series about how the research for Secrets From The Dust relates to the novel, I look at the Australian Aboriginal civil rights movement, followed by a short scene from the novel which illustrates their activities.

The Aboriginal civil rights movement of the 1960s focused on the key areas of Aboriginals having the right to be citizens of Australia, having ownership rights to land that they had occupied for thousands of years, and halting the policy of taking their mixed-raced children and placing them into institutions or foster care to be assimilated into European culture. The 1965 ‘bus rides’ across New South Wales were inspired by the black ‘freedom ride’ in America. In towns across the state, the participants protested the daily humiliations of Aboriginals not being allowed into public areas such as clubs, hotels, swimming pools, and public toilets (this seems to be a major restriction where bigotry raises its ugly head, as so well depicted in Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, set in the American South of the 1960s). Counter-protesters had spat, thrown food and sworn at the civil rights marchers, and on several occasions police had to pull the two groups apart.

Some key dates in the Aboriginal struggle for civil rights were:

  1. Aboriginal stockmen were awarded the same wages as their European peers in 1965 after the Australian Council of Trade Unions told its members to increase Aboriginal workers’ wages to the same rate as whites.
  2. In the May 1967 referendum, 91% voted yes to give Aboriginals full civil rights. Before this, they were not considered citizens of Australia and the constitution specifically excluded them from being counted in the census, although an Aboriginal could be made an honorary citizen. A popular campaign song before the referendum was: “Vote yes for Aborigines, they want to be Australians too; Vote yes and give them rights and freedoms just like me and you.”
  3. Queensland University and Sydney University were probably the most radicalised in Australia at the time, and had protests in support of Aboriginal rights as well as anti-Vietnam marches.
  4. On Australia Day in 1972, Aboriginal activists set up a tent embassy opposite Parliament House in Canberra. The aim was to embarrass the McMahon liberal government, which had brought out a policy that did not recognise Aboriginal land rights.
  5. The 1967 referendum led to a demand for land rights by Aboriginals, but by the 1980s, a backlash had come with the government retreating from its promise to enforce land rights.
  6. In 1992, the High Court of Australia overturned the fiction of Terra Nullius – that is the legal position up until then that the land of Australia belonged to no one in 1788 when Europeans arrived.
  7. In 1993 the Native Titles Act was passed, making native title claims to traditional ancestral lands possible. Aboriginals also won the right to negotiate, but not veto, developments on native title lands.
  8. In 1998, an amended Native Titles Act was passed, empowering the State and Territory governments to remove the right to negotiate developments on native lands, which Aboriginal organisations regard as a retrograde step.


Scene at Aboriginal Tent Embassy:

They drove the one hundred and seventy miles from Sydney to Canberra in three hours. Heng pulled out at the last moment, giving Margaret no time to frame an excuse not to go, so she and Matthew travelled in one car whilst Nannup and Joyce went in their own. Hundreds of blacks had begun arriving in Canberra on Saturday, on foot, by car and by the busload. The police had forcibly removed the ‘Aboriginal Embassy’, which had stood in a tent on the lawns opposite Parliament House, and they were there to re-erect it. It had been established there on Australia day, the 26 January 1972, to embarrass the government for bringing out a mineral exploitation policy that did not recognise Aboriginal land rights, and to symbolise that the Aboriginals were foreigners in their own land. It had stood for nearly six months, in spite of repeated attempts to remove it, but the government had grown frustrated and told the police to stop drinking wine and coffee in the tents with the protestors and dismantle it. The young Afro wearing Aboriginals who had manned the tent, with the help of their white student colleagues, were educated and proud of their heritage. As the tent was re-erected, blacks and whites linked arms three deep around the embassy and sang, “Black and White together, we shall not be moved,” to the tune of ‘We Shall Overcome’. The flag adopted was raised and fluttered over the tent, its black symbolising the Aboriginal peoples, its yellow circle the sun, and the red the earth and their blood spilt in the battle for it. Hundreds of police looked on not sure what to do.

The demonstrators were waving dozens of placards protesting about the stolen land and mineral exploitation of Aboriginal reserves, and a number of speakers spoke to the crowd, including Joyce.

When Joyce had finished speaking, they squeezed through the crowd into the tent. A few of the older activists jumped up and ran screaming to hug Joyce. She introduced them to the others, and told them that she had been on the ‘65 ‘bus rides’ across New South Wales with some of these people, which had been inspired by the black ‘freedom ride’ in America. They gave the newcomers tea and food, and laughed as they reminisced about driving through those towns to protest that Aborigines on reserves and the fringes of towns were not allowed in public areas such as clubs, hotels, swimming pools, public toilets and had to sit in the front stalls at picture theatres. Some whites had spat, thrown food and sworn at them, and on more than one occasion the police had intervened to pull them apart, but they agreed it had been worth it, it had probably shamed the country into having the ‘67 referendum. Joyce asked the others if they remembered coming to that town where the white men had been out in force, adamant that the protestors would not speak there. But when the Aboriginal women who lived in a camp on the edge of the town learned that they were there, they had hurried into town, some with their hands on their heavily pregnant hips, and they had called the names of the white men who visited the blacks camps at night, and those men had run back like chastened sheep to their homes. All except Margaret laughed with solid breaths at this.

As night fell the crowd guarding the embassy did not disperse, and their chattering, singing and laughter kept all awake. Margaret stumbled out into the bitter night, and her stomach lurched as she pulled back the tarpaulin and squelched through the soggy mud inside the make shift latrine, which gave off a rank, foul odour that stuck to her senses even after she had retreated. She played with the insipid food that was served up inside the tent, and watched with a caustic squirm twisting her face as Matthew joined the others in singing protest songs and comparing war stories of demonstrations up and down the country. It wouldn’t last she told herself. She had seen the older whites how tired they looked. They eventually moved on to fight over good paying city jobs and forgot about protest and revolution. She would get Matthew to herself some day.

In the morning the police moved in to the chant of “Zieg Heil, Zeig Heil,” from the crowd. Three hundred and sixty-two of them marched four abreast to encircle the embassy, and others pushed back the crowd. Those who had been there longest realised that the police were more bolstered with steel and organised than they had been on previous occasions. They ploughed in, en mass, and this time those who resisted were punched, kicked and beaten. The protestors fought back with inflamed spirits. Men and Women writhed on the ground screaming, those who fell broken and unconscious were put into cars and rushed to hospital, and the blood of protestors and police mingled to soak the ground. Margaret allowed herself to be carried off the lawn with grateful ease, but some of the others held on to each other, the poles of the tents, trees, anything to stop themselves being taken. The operation lasted a little more than an hour, and by the end of it the police had arrested eight people, including Matthew.

Robert and Helga Stevens squeezed through a cordon of photographers to get into the police station. The reception area looked like the northern cattle markets, with the friends and relatives of those arrested frantic to negotiate their release. Everyone was shouting to be heard at the same time, and they were pushing against each other to get closer to the sergeants desk. Mr Stevens saw Margaret on a bench with her jaded cheeks in her hands. He pointed her out to Helga and they went over to the bench. “Margaret?”

She jumped up, “Oh, Mr Stevens.” He didn’t move to take her extending hand, and she dropped it back to her side.

“Where is Matthew?” He asked, his jaws set and his manner terse.

“He— He’s in the cells downstairs. They won’t allow me to see him.” Mr Stevens had already spun and gone. Helga looked up and down Margaret as if she were searching for exactly what Matthew saw in her. Margaret stepped aside and gestured towards the bench, but Helga forced her sealed lips to curl upwards for a second and didn’t move. Margaret looked away and sat down again, but she couldn’t escape the pungent smell of perfumed powder that rose off Helga like steam.

“You do realise that you are not the first,” Helga said.


“Matthew likes to choose those less fortunate than himself.” Margaret stole an envious look up at the huge monument towering over her and turned away again. “Before you it was a little Indian girl,” Helga continued. “Then he was into Hinduism, or maybe it was Buddhism, you can never tell with Matthew. I thought his next charitable project would be that Vietnamese girl we’ve seen him with, after all, we are bombing their country.”

Margaret wanted to ignore her, but she couldn’t, Helga was too large a presence.

Bob Stevens strode back through the melee mopping his brow. “He’ll be released on bail in one hour, they are processing his papers,” he said to Helga. “I think it’s best if you return to Sydney by train, Margaret,” he pulled some notes from his wallet and held it towards her. “There are cameras outside and we don’t want to cause any confusion. I’m sure you understand. We’ll wait for Matthew and meet you back at the apartment.” Margaret got up and walked away without taking his money.

Previous Author research notes:

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About georgehamilton

George Hamilton likes to know what’s going on around the world, to delve into the customs and practices of different cultures, and this is often a feature of his novels. His tales are based on people's intense personal or family dramas, with major social or political events strongly impacting their story. In addition to World Literature, he also writes multi-genre novels which include: Historical, Suspense/Thriller, and Contemporary. He currently lives in London, England.
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4 Responses to Author’s research: Secrets From The Dust – Australian Aboriginal Civil Rights Movement

  1. Thanks a lot for the info George !

  2. Hi George.
    Interesting story. Sadly, there are similar injustices all many places all over the globe.
    What is the Aboriginal status now? Did they became equal citizens at last, or there are still some issues?

    • Hi Vladimir,
      The Koori peoples were granted full citizenship of Australia, but it will take years to overcome the trauma of some of the injustices, and there are still issues to be resolved. But I think former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a great reconciliation gesture when he gave an official government apology to the Koori peoples in 2008.

    • Sambo says:

      Australia are still practicing genocide, their are thousands without basic human rights as of today, watch “the first Australians” and read bill gamage’s book “the biggest estate on earth” Australias most shameful chapter is still being writen, also dont believe Australias Murdoch dominated media, they are only concerned with influencing public policy for monetary gain and have so much power no polli would dare speak out against them, also read john pilger, an aussie whos willing to tell the truth about his own people instead of romanticising our genocidle past, for 2% population in a nation of 25 million Aboriginals have shown how strong they really are, do your own research as most Australians know nothing about the land they live in

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