USA & Australian Civil Rights Movements


Plessy vs Ferguson


In 1892, an African American train passenger by the name of Homer Plessy refused to sit in a Jim Crow car, breaking a Louisiana law. This United States Supreme Court case upheld the constitutionality of segregation under the “separate but equal” principle. Rejecting Plessy’s argument that his constitutional rights were violated, the Court ruled that a state law that “implies merely a legal distinction” between whites and African Americans did not contradict the 13th and 14th amendments. This reasoning was not overturned until the Brown vs Board of Education decision in 1954.

Aboriginal Act of 1905


The Aboriginal Act of 1905 was created in the hopes of better protection and care of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Western Australia. This act made the Chief Protector the legal guardian of every Aboriginal and ‘half-caste’ child under 16 years old. It governed the lives of all Aboriginal Australians in Western Australia for nearly 60 years. This act also permitted authorities to ‘send and detain’ Aboriginal children in institutions and in work.

Northern Territory Aboriginal Ordinance Act


I1918n 1918, the Northern Territory Aboriginal Ordinance Act was passed. It ensured that Aboriginal people could not drink, possess or supply alcohol or methylated spirits, could not have firearms or marry non-Aboriginal people without permission, could not come within two chains of licensed premises or have sex across the colour line. This act also prohibits mining on Aboriginal Reserve Land.

Day of Mourning


On January 26th, 1938, the Day of Mourning was held by the Aborigines League and the Aborigines Progressive Association. This day is the first major protest by Indigenous Australians, but is also the first of many Aboriginal protests against injustice, dispossession of land, inequality and protectionist policies. Their manifesto was “Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights”, and a monthly newspaper “Abo Call” was published in Sydney that supported equality of treatment and opportunity for Aboriginal people.

Warburton Ranges Controversy

1947 - 1956

When more than 40 Aboriginal nomads were found sick and malnourished in the Central Desert in 1956, questions were raised in the Western Australian parliament. With their nuclear testing partnership with the british government, the Commonwealth government had established a weather station and was testing nuclear weapons. The Australian public was not very happy about the conditions of life experienced by the Aboriginals.

The United Nations Declaration of Human Right


In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the newly-formed United Nations and was supported by Australia.

Atomic Testing at Maralinga and Emu


In 1953, atomic tests were conducted on Maralinga lands at Emu Field, South Australia. A black cloud passed the small towns and hundreds of families were forced to leave their homes because of severe contamination.

Brown vs Board of Education


On the 17th of May, 1954, the United States Supreme Court passed down its ruling in the turning point case of Brown vs Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas. Linda Brown was a young African American that wanted to attend an all-white school that was closer to her house, instead of being forced to attend the all-black school. The Court’s united decision overturned the 1896 Plessy vs Ferguson decision, which allowed for “separate but equal” public facilities for African Americans, including public schools in the United States. The Supreme Court told states that schools needed to integrate, but when they felt like it, after they ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Montgomery Bus Boycott


In 1955, local authorities in Montgomery, Alabama, arrested Rosa Parks, a young African American, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. To protest the arrest of Parks and the segregation of the buses in Montgomery, members of the black community formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and launched a community wide boycott to force the system’s to integrate, organised by Martin Luther King Jr. All together, black commuters and a small number of white sympathisers suffered official harassment, numerous threats and personal inconvenience for longer than a year. This move deprived the bus company of 65% of its income. In late 1956, the United States Supreme Court ruled the segregated system unconstitutional and gave Montgomery officials a court order to desegregate the city’s buses, providing victory to the African American community in Montgomery.

Emmett Till Murder


In August of 1955, Mamie Till, a black single mother from Chicago, sent her 14 year old son, Emmett Till, to visit relatives in Mississippi. Till and his friends travelled to Money, a nearby, deeply-segregated but small town in the heart of Mississippi Delta where Emmett reportedly whistled and made advances towards a white woman when he entered a grocery shop. After the supposed incident, Emmett Till was kidnapped from the home of his uncle and his body was found days later with a fatal gunshot wound to the head, floating in a nearby river. Photos of his disfigured body were printed in the “Jet” magazine and papers all across the country, galvanizing support for racial reform in the South. Less than one month after Till's body was found, an all-white jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, the husband and half-brother of Till's accuser, for Till's murder. They later gave details in a magazine interview of how they killed Emmett.

Little Rock Central High School Integration


On September 3rd, 1957, nine students tried to enter the Little Rock High School in Arkansas. However, these students were prevented from doing so by National Guardsmen acting on the orders of the Arkansas State Governor. Later in the month, these nine students returned to the high school in hopes of attending, but they were prevented to do so by a mob of 1,000 townspeople. After several attempts to settle the issue with the Governor, President Eisenhower removed the Arkansas National Guard out of his control and ordered 1,000 paratroopers and 10,000 National Guardsmen to Little Rock. A couple of days later on the 25th of September, the school was desegregated. Despite suffering constant discrimination, eight out of the nine students finished the school year.

Albert Namatjira Arrest


In the late 1950s almost all Aboriginal people of full descent in the Northern Territory were wards of the state. Albert Namatjira, famed Arrernte artist, appeared to be a man who could bridge two vastly different cultures. He was not classified as a ward when new legislation was implemented in 1957, and so he became an Australian citizen. Since it was illegal for Australian citizens to provide alcohol for wards, when Namatjira shared a drink with a kinsman he was breaking the law and ended up getting arrested.

Sit-In Campaigns


In February 1960, after being refused service at the lunch counter of a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, Joseph McNeill, a black college student, returned with three of his African American college friends the next day and walked up to the whites-only lunch counter and asked for a coffee. The service was refused but the four students returned to the lunch counter each day. When an article in the New York Times was written about their protest, they were joined by more students, both black and white, and students across America were inspired to launch similar peaceful protests. Despite threats and intimidation, the students sat quietly and patiently as they waited to be served. Eventually, Woolworth’s abandoned the segregation.

Freedom Riders


In May of 1961, a group of student activists made up of both black and white racial backgrounds started a cross-country campaign to try to end the segregation of bus terminals in the Deep South. They departed Washington D.C. by bus to test local compliance with two Supreme Court rulings banning segregated accommodations on interstate buses and bus terminals that served interstate routes. The Freedom Riders travelled with little difficulty through the states of North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina. However, these activists faced problems and violent resistance in Alabama. People were severely injured in beatings in Montgomery and Birmingham, and a mob of angry white people firebombed one of the buses outside the city of Anniston. Despite all of the violence, these activists refused to give up and continued riding the buses.

University of Mississippi Riot


In late September, 1962, riots erupted on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Students, locals and committed activists that believed in segregation had gathered to protest the enrollment of James Meredith, a black Air Force veteran who was attempting to integrate the all-white school. President Kennedy order more than 120 Federal Marshals to escort Meredith to protect him from harm. Once it reached nightfall the crowd turned violent and authorities struggled to maintain order. The next morning, once the smoke had cleared, two civilians were killed and a large number of people were injured. After spending the night under federal protection, Meredith was allowed to enrol and later became the first black graduate from the university.

March on Washington


In late August, 1963, more than 200,000 Americans attended a political rally in Washington D.C. known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was organised by a number of civil rights and religious groups to shed light on the social and political challenges of African Americans. This march was when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous and inspirational “I Have A Dream” speech about racial justice and equality.

Birmingham, Alabama


During the 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama was one of the most segregated cities in the United States. In the spring of 1963, activists in this heavily segregated city started an influential campaign known as Project C, or also known as The Birmingham Campaign. It was the start of a number of lunch counter sit-ins, boycotts on downtown merchants and marches on City Hall to protest segregation laws in the city. Over the next few months these peaceful protests were met with violent attacks using high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs on men, women and children. These actions were ordered by the Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Connor, however, he never apologised for his racist comments and actions by his policemen. These images were shown across the country and helped the Civil Rights Movement gain sympathy. These campaigns ended with with victory when local officials agreed to remove “White Only” and “Black Only” signs from drinking fountains and restrooms, desegregate lunch counters and many more. Over the next few months, desegregation would slowly take place, including the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four young black girls.

Bark Petition


The people of Yirrkala in the Northern Territory sent a bark petition in 1963 to the House of Representatives, to protest against mining in the Gove Peninsula. The Governor General William De L’Isle received the petition in late August. While the majority of senior clan members signed the document, it is rejected by the Federal Government as they deemed it wasn’t signed by a sufficient number of people.

Civil Rights Act of 1964


Using the memory of the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy, newly appointed President Johnson helped push new laws through Congress. The act outlawed segregation in public spaces, schools and employment, in places such as pools, libraries, restaurants and hotels.

Freedom Riders


In 1965, Charles Perkins, a civil rights activist, leads a freedom ride by Aboriginal people and students through north-western New South Wales in support of Aboriginal rights. The ride demonstrates the extent of discrimination against Aboriginal people in country towns, including refusal of service in shops and segregated cinemas, swimming pools, hotels and clubs. It included 35 university students travelling around to various Indigenous communities.



The Australian referendum of 1967 approved two amendments to the Australian constitution relating to Aboriginal Australians. Australians voted in favour of changes to the Australian constitution to improve the service available to Indigenous Australians. This referendum allowed Aboriginal Australians to receive federally funded services like social security and education. It also allowed Aboriginal Australians to be recognised in the Australian census for the first time.

Tent Embassy Protest


A Tent Embassy was erected on the lawns of Parliament House in 1972 in Canberra to protest against a court decision over mining operations on Aboriginal land. It adopts the Indigenous flag and nowadays, the Embassy has become a heritage-listed landmark for Aboriginal protest.

Royal Commission


A Royal Commission was formed following an announcement by Prime Minister Hawke on the 10th of August, 1987, to further investigate Aboriginal deaths in custody in various state and territory jails. There was growing public concern that deaths in custody of Aboriginal people were too common and poorly explained. The Commission examined all deaths in custody and actions taken in respect for each death which occurred between the 1st of January, 1980, and the 31st of May, 1989. They took into account the social, cultural and legal factors which may have had a bearing on the deaths under investigation.

Eddie Mabo Case


In early June, 1992, six of the seven High Court judges upheld the claim and ruled that the lands of this continent were not terra nullius or ‘land belonging to no-one’ when European settlement occurred, and that the Meriam people were 'entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of (most of) the lands of the Murray Islands'. The case presented by Eddie Mabo and the people of Mer successfully proved that Meriam custom and laws are fundamental to their traditional system of ownership and support their traditional rights and obligations in relation to land.

Sorry Day


On February 13th, 2008, Aboriginal people across Australia were deeply moved and in tears, after finding out that the Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, had finally apologised to the Stolen Generations and said ‘sorry’. This speech proved to be an amazing thing for Aboriginal Australians.