At the Kristallnacht Commemoration Service on Wedneday 9th November at Carmel School in Yokine, both the keynote speaker Professor Kenneth Chern, and Vice President of the Council of Christians and Jews, Mr Ken Arkwright OAM, spoke about William Cooper, the Aboriginal Rights Activist during their presentations.
Mr Cooper, an Aboriginal Leader and Spokesperson, is beloved of Jewish people because he is the only private person to stage a protest after Kristallnacht and the beginning of the pogrom against the jews in Germany.
William Cooper, of Yorta Yorta descent, spent most of his life in the Cummeragunja community where he was a spokesman for the Yorta Yorta in their ongoing battles for land justice against the New South Wales government. In 1933, at 72 years of age, he left his beloved home to go to Melbourne, as residence on the reserve made him ineligible for the old-age pension. He made his home in Footscray, which became the centre for other Cummeragunja exiles such as his grand-nephew Doug Nicholls, Margaret Tucker, Shadrach James and others. This group became the nucleus for the Australian Aborigines’ League, which was formalised in 1934 to plan action on behalf of Aboriginal people. Apart from ongoing letters to politicians and bureaucrats, William Cooper dedicated many years of his life to the gathering of signatures for a petition to King George V which asked, among other things, for Aboriginal representation in the federal parliament. Despite years of travelling, in which he gathered between 1800 and 2000 signatures, the petition strategy failed.
William Cooper contributed to a further strategy which challenged the colonial view of the settlement of Australia. In 1938, celebrations were planned to mark the sesqui-centenary of the arrival of the British. In response, William Cooper with Bill Ferguson of the Aborigines Progressive Association, planned a ‘Day of Mourning’ so that Aboriginal people could draw attention to the destructive effects of the invasion. This powerful symbolic gesture, along with the petition to the King and the formation of the Australian Aborigines’ League, mark the beginning of political organisation for Aboriginal Australians and have inspired the following generations of activists working for justice for Indigenous Australians.
On 6 December 1938, several weeks after Kristallnacht in Germany Cooper led a delegation of the Australian Aboriginal League to the German Consulate in Melbourne to deliver a petition which condemned the “cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi Government of Germany.” The protest has been referred to as “the only private protest against the Germans following Kristallnacht.”
On 6 December 2008, the 70th anniversary of the protest against Kristallnacht, Cooper’s grandson, Alfred “Boydie” Turner, was presented with a certificate from the Israeli Ambassador stating that 70 Australian trees were to be planted in Israel in honor of William Cooper. The ceremony, held at the State Parliament in Melbourne, was attended by several dozen members of the Yorta Yorta tribe as well as Victorian Premier John Brumby, Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, lawmakers, diplomats and Jewish leaders.
On 28 April 2009, five trees were planted at the Forest of the Martyrs near Jerusalem at a ceremony in Israel attended by Turner and about 12 members of William Cooper’s extended family as well as a number of Jewish leaders. On the same day, a ceremony at the Aborigines Advancement League in Melbourne was held to honour Cooper’s “brave stance against the oppression of the Jews.”
In August 2010, the Yad VaShem Holocaust museum in Israel announced they would honour Cooper for his protests against the behavior towards Jews on Kristallnacht. Yad Vashem plans to endow a small garden at its entrance in Cooper’s honor. Cooper’s name was submitted for recognition when it was discovered that Cooper’s rally was the only private protest against Germany in the wake of Kristallnacht.