The Struggle for Rights: Aboriginal Citizenship in the 1960s

Citizenship Finally Granted

The successful outcome of the 1967 referendum is well regarded and remembered as a major turning point in Aboriginal race relations. For Aboriginals this symbolised a long fought-for moment of equality, rights, justice, sovereignty, freedom and a chance to integrate within white society. This elevation in social status created new opportunities in the form of education, employment, equal pay as well as improved housing conditions and medical access. Ninety per cent of the population voted in support of the altering of constitution, giving Aboriginals recognition as citizens as well as facilitating the Federal Government to create special laws on their behalf. These special laws were to replace the discriminatory legislation produced by State Governments and with the aim of creating beneficiary laws in favour of and to compensate Aboriginals.


Not the Moment of Equality

This 1967 referendum served little more than as a symbolic gesture. The quality of life for Aboriginals today is substantially poorer than the rest of Australian society: experiencing on average a 10 year shorter life expectancy, higher unemployment levels, lower educational levels, poorer housing, higher infant mortality rate and poorer health and nutrition. Campaigners of the referendum believed the Federal Government would actively assume control of Aboriginal affairs however this was not the reality. The Coalition Government conveniently misunderstood this clause and upheld the status quo due to their unwillingness to legislate in benefit of Aboriginals. No positive changes occurred in the aftermath of 1967 referendum until the Whitlam government assumed power in 1972.

Why the 1960s?

The Aboriginal rights and equality movement peaked in the 1960s. All previous attempts lost momentum due to factors such as the World Wars, a lack of public interest/publicity and the Federal Government’s unwillingness to examine the issue. The 1960’s saw changing perceptions, expectations and demands that would reorientate the structure of society. The U.S. Civil rights movement significantly motivated and influenced Aboriginals as they would no longer tolerate the inequality, injustice, discrimination and their imposed place within society. The Civil Rights Movement ultimately encouraged Aboriginals to fight for equality and to seize this opportunity.

The Long Fight for Aboriginal Equality

The Aboriginal’s inability to physically fight or intimidate the invaders resulted in their weak political standing. White colonisers believed the demise of the Aboriginal race was inevitable and this sentiment is strongly reflected in early government policies and practices. A few instances of early Aboriginal resistance exist however the full scope remains unknown as the vast majority of Aboriginals relied strongly on their oral culture and were not literate.  

The Day of Mourning protest took place on the 150th anniversary of British colonisation. This 1938 protest was organised by William Cooper of The Australian Aborigines’ League, the most important early example of Aboriginal political organisations. The Day of Mourning was largely ineffective with little to no progress achieved toward the Aboriginal struggle for equality.

The Federal Council of Aboriginal Affairs Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) was instrumental in protesting discriminatory policies and practices of State Governments. Its main objectives were to achieve legislative reform, equal wages, employment opportunities, land rights and educational opportunities. Under the guidance of Joe McGinness, The FCATTSI considered a referendum essential in achieving equal rights and accordingly distributing petitions in support of this. FCAATSI were significant in representing Aboriginals and their communities who suffered under oppressive government policies.

 The Freedom Rides of 1965 demonstrated and tested the extent of Aboriginal freedom in country New South Wales. Organised by a group of Sydney University Students and led by Charles Perkins, the group brought the conflict of Aboriginal race relations into the heart of public life in Walgett and Morree. Violent confrontations took place in both towns and the rides received substantial amount of national publicity. The rides are regarded as a symbolic change of face and directly challenged the accepted Aboriginal positions in country Australia.  

The Wave Hill Walk Off lead by Vincent Lingiari in 1966 saw 200 Aboriginal workers and families protest about unfair wages, minimal food and appalling housing. This protest became the longest in Australian history as the Gurindji people demanded land to create a self-sufficient community and refused to work for the pastoral company. The strike ended in 1975 with the Labor Government granting a portion of land, a breakthrough for the Aboriginal land rights movement.


The aftermath of the inaction of the referendum saw a new breed of radical protest in the form of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. The embassy was erected in protest to Prime Minister McMahons 1972 speech where he announced leases for Aboriginal land and the importance of assimilations of Aboriginals within the wider community. The Embassy will be removed once Aboriginals receive ownership of reserves and financial compensation. It still stands after 40 years. 


What did Citizenship Mean for Aboriginals in the 1960s?

Aboriginals receiving citizenship in the 1960s was a significant symbolic victory. However, this event was not the definitive moment of equality Aboriginals had long fought for with social inequalities still facing Aboriginals today. The meaning of the 1967 referendum for Aboriginals lies in the celebration and recognition of individuals, stories and events that contributed towards the fight for Aboriginal rights and equality. The granting of citizenship pays homage to these individuals and efforts and although their desires and intentions were unfulfilled, they were able to elevate the status of Aboriginal’s in Australian society without the sacrifice of heritage and culture.

Further Reading

Attwood, Bain and Andrew Markus. The 1967 Referendum: Race, Power and the Australian Constitution. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007.

Attwood, Bain and Andrew Markus. The Struggle For Aboriginal Rights: Documentary History. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1999.

McGinness, Joe. Son of Alyandabu: My Fight for Aboriginal Rights. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1991.

Perkins, Charles. A Bastard Like Me. Sydney: Ure Smith, 1975.



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