1938 Day of Mourning – Aboriginal Civil Rights Protest

1938 Day of Mourning, 'Man Magazine'

1938 Day of Mourning, ‘Man Magazine’

In November 1937, William Ferguson the organising secretary and co-founder of the Aborigines Progressive Association of New South Wales travelled to Melbourne to meet with representatives of the Victorian based Australian Aborigines League, to strengthen ties between the two organisations and to seek assistance in furthering the NSW based organisation’s campaign for full citizen’s rights for Aboriginal people.

Ties between the two organisations leaders had been forged many years prior to either organisation’s founding, with the APA’s co-founder and President Jack Patten having been born a Yorta Yorta man, on the Cummeragunja Reserve in 1905, with strong familial connections there. Patten’s kin on the reserve included prominent civil rights figures based in both organisations: Margaret Tucker and her sister Geraldine Briggs were his cousins; George Patten, was Jack’s younger brother; Bill Onus, his brother in-law; and William Cooper, was Patten’s uncle through marriage.

During the course of Ferguson’s meeting, Ferguson spoke at length with the league’s president, Mr. Arthur Berdue, its founder William Cooper, Margaret Tucker, and Cooper’s nephew – former Fitzroy football star Doug Nicholls.  They discussed William Ferguson and Jack Patten’s plan to enact a form of protest on January 26, to commemorate the sesquicentenary of the European invasion of Australia. To which, William Cooper and the AAL gave their full support, and offered the suggestion that the day could be marked as a national “Day of Mourning.”

It was agreed that four events were to be held. The first being an open discussion and series of speeches delivered in Sydney’s Domain, chaired by Michael Sawtell, an associate of Jack Patten’s who had founded the Aborigines Citizenship Association. This was to be followed by the official Day of Mourning Conference, to be attended by people of Aboriginal ancestry only. The evening would play host to a meeting for the benefit of non-Indigenous supporters, whilst the final meeting would be a Day of Mourning support function, hosted by William Cooper in Melbourne on January 31.

It was Patten and Ferguson’s hope that the Day of Mourning conference would result in a national body being founded, and that the manifesto they had penned would lead to Aboriginal representation in parliament.


12 November 1937 – William Ferguson meets with representatives of the Australian Aborigines League to gain support for a proposed protest to be held in NSW on Jan 26. The AAL motion to support the New South Wales Aborigines Progressive Association’s request for assistance. William Cooper posits that the protest should be presented as a national “Day of Mourning”.

1 January 1938 – Professor A. P. Elkin, anthropologist and President of the Association for the Protection of Native Races pens an article in support of the proposed Day of Mourning protest.

12 January 1938 – David Unaipon, an Aboriginal inventor and author decries plans for the Day of Mourning, describing the move as a “huge mistake” and that the protest was being led by “halfcastes” and would not be supported by “full blooded Aborigines”, who would instead “await stoically and silently the granting of the privileges now enjoyed by the dominant white race.”

22 January 1938 – William Cooper responds to criticism from David Unaipon, citing his being perturbed by “unreasonable” commentary which he believed if left unchecked would prejudice the efforts of the organising parties.

23 January 1938William Cooper urges Christian organisations around the country to observe the 23rd of January as “Aborigines Day”, with special prayers to be made in respect to the “uplift” of Aboriginal people.

25 January 1938 – A meeting is held in Sydney’s domain, chaired by Michael Sawtell and featuring speakers from both the APA and AAL.

31 January 1938 – Jack Patten leads a deputation to meet with Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. William Cooper is not part of the delegation, having returned to Melbourne to host a support event, passing the same resolutions.

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3 Responses

  1. Abe says:

    John… Wow!
    This is a fascinating timeline… look forward to discussing it further with you, Abe

  2. Lexie says:

    Great work my big Cousin ? Thank you for everything you’ve done here! It’s a good feeling knowing I have this to show my daughter & she too can show her Children in the future. Lex.

  3. David Jones says:

    Thank you. This is such an important part of the story of Australia.

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