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Australian Aborigines' League

The Australian Aborigines' League (AAL) was founded in Melbourne in 1933 by an elderly Yorta Yorta man, William Cooper, and several other Aboriginal people, most of them exiles from Cumeragunja, a government reserve on the Murray River, who gathered in Fitzroy and other inner-city suburbs. They regarded the AAL as their organisation, and its constitution stipulated that only Aboriginal people could be full members and that they should mainly fill its administrative positions. Yet Cooper, as secretary, also relied on sympathetic non-Aboriginal activists like Helen Baillie and Arthur Burdeu, who became the president.

Adopting a motto of 'A fair deal for the dark race', the AAL campaigned for the repeal of discriminatory legislation and for programs to 'uplift the aboriginal race'. In seeking equal rights and integration, however, its spokespersons expressed pride in being Aboriginal and some of their demands rested on an assertion of Aboriginality.

The League mostly focused on and reflected the needs of Aboriginal people in Melbourne and their kin on Victorian and New South Wales reserves but, unlike most other contemporary Aboriginal organisations, also projected itself as a national body representing all Aboriginal people. This is evident in a petition to King George V that Cooper had drawn up in 1933, which featured a call for representation in the Commonwealth Parliament.

The petition was typical of the League's political methods: letters to political leaders, deputations to ministers, appeals to the public through public meetings and the press, and approaches to other pressure groups. But in the late 1930s, disheartened by government indifference, it adopted more dramatic means of publicising the Aboriginal plight, sanctioning a Day of Mourning to mark Australia's sesquicentenary and supporting a walk-off at Cumeragunja.

The League became defunct during World War II but was revived in 1944-45 by Cooper's protégé Doug Nicholls and by Bill Onus. In 1957 its role was largely assumed by a new organisation, the Aborigines Advancement League.

Bain Attwood

Attwood, Bain, and Andrew Markus, Thinking black: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines' League, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2004. Details