Defying Despair

Natasha Moore goes back in time to Activist William Cooper, who passed on the baton of hope, to make sense of the Voice referendum result.

In the wake of the Voice referendum, I’ve been thinking about William Cooper. 

In 1938, the Yorta Yorta elder was 78 years old. That year, Australians were celebrating 150 years since colonisation, and Cooper, together with the Australian Aborigines League that he founded, organised a Day of Mourning in response. 

That was January. In November, the wave of violence known as Kristallnacht swept across Nazi Germany – and Cooper found he could not stay silent on the treatment of Jewish people halfway across the world any more than on the treatment of his own people at home.  

In December he organised a march, a delegation of Christian Aboriginal people who shared neither race nor religion with those being persecuted in Germany, but who felt compelled to protest the violence to the German consulate in Melbourne.  

Predictably, the delegation’s written condemnation was rejected. Cooper experienced decades of rejection and failure in his campaigns for his people, and it was his protégé Pastor Doug Nicholls who would take the baton and help drive the success of the 1967 referendum. 

But that march was the only known protest of its kind in the world, and 70 years later Cooper was honoured by the Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust in Israel. 

85 years on from Cooper’s apparently fruitless gesture, is it a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same? Jewish people brutally attacked, desperate Gazans suffer, and closer to home reconciliation looks pretty shaky. 

Only the dead have seen the end of war, I remind myself, gloomily.  

But also: look to the helpers. Look to the William Coopers, who find a way to defy despair and do what can be done – aspire, even, to what plainly cannot be done – in hope that things might not always be the same.  


Christmas a time to reflect on reconciliation

Barney Zwartz considers the beauty – and the difficulty – of genuine reconciliation.