31st January 1938 and Beyond

The following week, on 31 January 1938, a deputation of about 20 people met with the Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, his wife Enid as well as the Minister for the Interior, John McEwen, (whose Department held responsibility for Aborigines in the Northern Territory), to present a proposed national policy for Aboriginals which included 10 points.

Among the deputation were John Patten, William Ferguson, Mrs D. Anderson, Helen Grosvenor, Pearl Gibbs and her mother, and Tom Foster.

They called for Commonwealth control of all Aboriginal matters, with a separate Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs; an administration advised by a Board of six, at least three of whom were to be Aboriginals nominated by the Aborigines Progressive Association; and full citizen status for all Aboriginals and civil equality with white Australians, including equality in education, labour laws, workers compensation, pensions, land ownership and wages.

Lyons replied that, under the Constitution, Commonwealth control was not possible.


Deputation to the Prime Minister

The Australian Abo Call printed a full copy of the statement made to the Prime Minister at the Deputation of the Aborigines on 31st January last. The Prime Minister was accompanied by Dame Enid Lyons and by Mr. McEwan, Minister of the Interior. The Deputation consisted of twenty Aborigines, men and women, and Mr. Lyons gave a hearing of two hours to the statement of our case.

Cooper received a letter from the government in March 1938 notifying him that 'no good purpose would be served by transmitting the petition to His Majesty in the meantime, and action in this regard is therefore being held in abeyance'12.

However, Cooper never gave up on the petition. He continued his campaign of letter writing to Lyons and then Menzies in 1939. Cooper was never to see his vision fulfilled, the petition was never sent to the King. In November 1940 Cooper retired as Honorary Secretary of the AAL and he passed away in 1941.

The Day of Mourning 1938 was a beginning for many future events. The AAL was able to persuade manychurches to declare the Sunday before Australia Day ‘Aboriginal Sunday’ with the first of these the 28th January 1940 continuing until 1955, when it moved to the first Sunday in July.

In 1957, with support and cooperation from Federal and State governments, the churches and major Indigenous organisations, a National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC) was formed, which continues to this day as NAIDOC.

William Cooper’s vision of federalisation of Indigenous affairs and citizenship rights was finally realised in the 1967 Referendum.

26th January 1988 fifty years after the Day of Mourning was a day for Aboriginal people to celebrate their survival.

Australia Day ... Invasion Day ...Survival Day is a photo gallery on flickr of Melbourne celebrations in 2008.

26 January 1998 the National History and Heritage Council organise a 60th Anniversary march to commemorate the 1938 Day of Mourning and the struggle to save the Australia Hall, the site of the first Day of Mourning.

Brenda Saunders (Palma) Save Our Site, 1997 Source: Brenda Saunders, digital composite image
Gordon Hookey Day of Mourning, 1997 Gordon Hookey, of the Waanyi people, was born in Cloncurry, North-West Queensland, in 1961. He has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts, Sydney. Over the years he has had a number of exhibitions of note including Ruddock's wheel, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Liverpool, New South Wales (2001), and been involved in a number of group exhibitions including Uncommon world, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2001). At the 2005 Deadly awards he won the Deadly for Visual Artist of the Year. His work is represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, the Queensland Arts Gallery, Brisbane and the National Museum of Australia, Canberra. Source: National Museum of Australia, IL 2006/0146.0001.
Brenda Saunders (Palma) 1938 Day of Mourning and Protest 60th anniversary 26th January 1998 This poster was created by Indigenous artist Brenda Palma who was involved in the campaign by the National Aboriginal History and Heritage Council to save the Australian Hall Building which is the site of the first national conference of the Aborigines Progressive Association called the Day of Mourning held on the 26th January 1938 Source: AIATSIS, M 1376 PC 10 LAW / JUSTICE FOLDER 11..


  1. National Archives of Australia: Representation of Aborigines in Commonwealth Parliament; A431, 1949/1591 p. 83; letter to William Cooper, Honorary Secretary, Australian Aborigines’ League, from Secretary unsigned.