From Little Things Big Things Grow
Exhibtion developed by National Museum of Australia, touring nationally see website for details 

From Little Things Big Things Grow gives a useful and engaging overview of the struggles for Aboriginal rights over the period of the 1920s to 1970s.

The exhibition is on display at the Museum of Sydney as part of a tour across the country.

It traces the birth of the modern Aboriginal rights movement in the 1920s and 1930s, when Indigenous people first started forming their own organisations to bring attention to their treatment by the Australian government.

Posters and flyers from a whole range of different campaigns and issues adorn the walls of the exhibition, connecting the visitor to the mood of the various struggles. This sense of immediacy is accentuated by the similarities between the demands of these campaigns and those that activists are fighting for today.

A watershed event in the Aboriginal rights movement was the Freedom Ride of 1965. Sydney University students and led by Charles Perkins were determined to unveil the systems of racial segregation in rural NSW. This section of the exhibition boasts a simulated Bowraville Theatre and has a film continuously showing the Freedom Riders confronting the racism of rural NSW.

The mock cinema illustrates the apartheid regime that was so brazenly enforced in Bowraville, with plush, upholstered seats at the back for whites, and austere wooden benches at the front for blacks, who were obliged to enter the cinema after the film had started.

Following confrontations with local crowds, who spat on and hurled fruit and rocks at the activists, the Freedom Riders succeeded in forcing the Moree public pool owner to lift the bar on Aboriginal people. The film then shows Aboriginal children enjoying access to the pool alongside other children.

The section on the Gurindji walk-off of 1966 reveals the strength the movement gained from the joint struggle between black and white activists. Frank Hardy, a journalist and communist, helped raise money for the strikers through the sales of his publications. To this could be added the significant material and moral support of the unions, for instance from the Actors Equity union—who organised a speaking tour that allowed Aboriginal activists to share their plight with the rest of the country—and the Waterside Workers Federation, whose $10 000 levy helped sustain the courageous Wave Hill strikers.

These cumulative struggles and the black-white alliances that underpinned them laid the groundwork for a campaign that secured a 90 per cent “yes” vote in the 1967 referendum, which finally gave Australia’s first peoples citizenship rights.

Although not always as explicit as in the 1970s, land rights demands underlay the struggles for civil rights in the 1960s. These demands gave birth to a new, more radical current demanding land title, reflecting the wider radicalisation taking place in Australian society at the time.

One piece of campaign material that stands out is the Smash the Act poster. In 1972, activists and legal experts had challenged the Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act in Queensland. This allowed police to confiscate Aboriginal people’s possessions and remove children. Aboriginal people who were “under the Act” were denied the right to manage and spend their own money.

But the legislation remained intact, and in the early 1970s a group of young Aboriginal activists led by Denis Walker called for a more radical approach.

The Smash the Act poster draws attention to the double standards of the treatment of Aboriginal people under the law: “White people spend their money how they want to and when they want to … White people have their wages set under industrial agreements in which they have some say. They do not have their wages set at an incredibly low level ($10-$25 per week) by Government Regulations in which they have no say at all … This is because whites do not live under the Aborigines’ and Torres Strait Islander’s Affairs Act of 1965. Only blacks do. Demand the right to run your own lives. Demand that this act be smashed.”

Sound familiar? It is artifacts like this that strike a chord for those familiar with the current attacks on Aboriginal people, such as under the Northern Territory Intervention where people in Aboriginal communities are forced onto ‘BasicsCards’, which withhold half of their income to be used only on food and clothing.

Aboriginal workers in these communities are having their pay quarantined onto this card, resulting in some receiving $4 per hour plus rations.

What is powerful about this exhibition is that it suggests the continuity in the oppressive and patronising treatment by governments of Aboriginal people over the years. While it does not discuss how much Aboriginal people still have to fight for today, given the context of the NT Intervention, it is hard not to see the similarities in the campaigns of today.

By Lachlan Marshal

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