Christians and the Referendum

Joanna Cruickshank reflects on the historical role of Aboriginal Christian leaders in the 1967 Referendum.

As I reflect on the 1967 referendum, as a white historian and Christian, I am struck by the extraordinary courage and persistence of those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders who waged a decade-long campaign to change the Constitution.

The names of most of these leaders are unknown to non-Indigenous Australians, as is the fact that many of them were Christians. In the course of my research, it is my privilege to encounter the names and stories of many of these men and women.

Pastor Doug Nicholls and his wife Gladys Nicholls, Pastor Frank Roberts, Mum Shirl (Shirley Smith) and Margaret Tucker were among those leaders who took strength and inspiration for the struggle from both their Christian faith and their Aboriginal culture and community. For each of these men and women, the referendum was only one aspect of a lifetime of advocacy for their people, but they led the way in educating non-Indigenous Christians about the injustices Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were suffering in 1967.

Pastor Frank Roberts, for example, was a Bundjalung man who became a pastor with the United Aborigines Mission and later the Assemblies of God. Roberts became caretaker of Cubawee Reserve near Lismore, but preached across New South Wales, Western Australia and South Australia, speaking in churches, on Aboriginal reserves and even to crowds in Martin Place, Sydney. As a pastor, he had opportunities to exhort non-Indigenous Christians to support the efforts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to gain justice. Pastor Frank advocated for the Commonwealth to take control of Aboriginal affairs – as achieved through the referendum – as one of the reforms needed to provide Aboriginal peoples with equality.

Pastor Frank’s belief that the Constitution should be changed reflected his experience of the injustices created by unjust state legislation, in a lifetime of struggle against the NSW Board of Protection. Writing to the Northern Star in 1960, he noted that the Board discouraged Christian work on its reserves and was attempting to undermine Aboriginal leadership. He urged the Board to ‘obey the Biblical injunction and let truth prevail’. Pastor Frank passed away soon after the referendum but was a passionate and effective leader who rallied Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples to the cause of justice.

Margaret-_Tucker3.pngMargaret Tucker, another long-standing Aboriginal leader, was a member of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League and worked with the League to promote the ‘yes’ vote in the Referendum. She was one of many Aboriginal leaders of her generation in Victoria – along with Pastor Doug Nicholls and Bill and Eric Onus – who had been mentored by William Cooper. It is documented that William Cooper gave his heart to God after a church service lead by Daniel Matthews in 1884. William Cooper was one of the leaders of the 26 January 1938 “Day of Mourning” and is acknowledged as the leader of the only private protest against the Germans following Kristallnacht. These leaders, whilst in the midst of oppression, had an understanding of the fight for justice through their Christian conviction. Margaret Tucker formed strong links with the Moral Rearmament Movement, a Christian-based social reform movement that worked against racism, and educated its members about the need for legal and social change in Australia. In 1967, she co-founded the United Council of Aboriginal and Islander Women, the first national body for Indigenous Australian women and spent the rest of her life promoting the rights of Aboriginal people as well as openly sharing her Christian faith.

This Reconciliation Week, I thank God for the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christians like Pastor Frank and Margaret Tucker, who helped lead the nation forward in 1967. Their lives deserve to be honoured in our nation and particularly in our Christian communities. Their examples reminds and challenges us that working towards justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this nation must be a central expression of our faith in a loving and just God.

Standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, may we encourage, value and uphold today’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian leaders and ensure we provide avenues for the next generations.

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Take Action: Give thanks & pray

Give thanks for the faithful Christians who have gone before us and stood for justice and compassion for all.

Pray for the Christian churches of Australia to encourage our Aboriginal brothers and sisters of faith, to stand with them and to fight alongside them for the future work of justice.

Together let us pray for the journey of healing in this prayer written by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission:

Almighty and loving God, you, who created ALL people in your image, lead us to seek your compassion as we listen to the stories of our past.

You gave your only Son, Jesus, who died and rose again so that sins will be forgiven. We place before you the pain and anguish of dispossession of land, language, lore, culture and family kinship that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have experienced. We live in faith that all people will rise from the depths of despair and hopelessness.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families have endured the pain and loss of loved ones, through the separation of children from their families. We are sorry and ask God’s forgiveness. Touch the hearts of the broken, homeless and afflicted and heal their spirits. In your mercy and compassion walk with us as we continue our journey of healing to create a future that is just and equitable. Lord, you are our hope.


Reconciliation Week