How the 1938 Day of Mourning launched the modern January 26 rally

Sydneysiders woke on January 26, 1938, to a warm, clear day of festivities to celebrate 150 years since British colonisation.

But in the shadow of a grand sailing regatta, parade and a re-enactment of first contact between the First Fleet and the Eora peoples, a thousand-strong group of Aboriginal men and women marched through Sydney protesting more than a century of brutal mistreatment.

They declared January 26 the Day of Mourning, the movement now recognised as one of the world’s first civil rights gatherings.

Black and white image of a group of aboriginal men wearing tradition dress, dancing in a circle.
Aboriginal men from Menindee mission in far-west New South Wales were forced to travel to Sydney and perform in the re-enactments on January 26, 1938.(Supplied: State Library of New South Wales)

Historian John Patten is the grandson of Jack Patten, one of the founding fathers of the historic event. He said the march was one of the most important moments for Indigenous people in the past century.

Making the occasion even more momentous is that at the time, it was illegal for Aboriginal people to move freely across Australia.

Regardless, the delegation included many people from different Aboriginal nations across Victoria and New South Wales, all of whom gathered at Australian Hall in Sydney’s CBD.

John Patten sits at a table in his kitchen, covered in historical photos of his ancestor John Patten.
John Patten’s grandfather was Jack Patten, one of the founders of the 1938 Day of Mourning.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

They were forced to use the back-alley entrance of the building.

“[Aboriginal people] were fading into the background and [non Aboriginal] people were making statements at that time that we were a dying race,” Mr Patten said.

“It was a time where [the group] were able to signify what their goals were for moving forward.”

Jack Patten was the President of the Aborigines Progressive Association and was joined by other Indigenous rights pioneers William Ferguson, Margaret Tucker and Geraldine Briggs in leading the congress.

A black and white photo of Aboriginal men and women in 1938, holding a sign that reads "Aborigines claim citizen rights!"
The grandchildren of Margaret Tucker (second from left) and Jack Patten (fourth from left) are continuing their legacy of activism.(Supplied: State Library of NSW)

“Every Australian knows who Dr Martin Luther King Jr is, or would know who Malcolm X is or even possibly Rosa Parks,” Mr Patten said.

“But how many know who William Cooper, Jack Patten, Margaret Tucker [are]?”

They gave impassioned speeches, mourning the loss of Country, freedoms and fellow mob, and passed the following resolution:

“This being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people TO FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.”

John Patten said the conference allowed the leaders to secure a meeting with the prime minister, Joseph Lyons, making them the first Indigenous group to ever meet with a sitting prime minister.

John Patten holds up a creased black and white photo showing a group of Aboriginal men in 1938.
John Patten says much of today’s activism is built on the “giants of the past”.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

The protest eventually opened avenues for movements and advancements like the 1967 Indigenous referendum and the Tent Embassy, which was established opposite Parliament House in 1972.

Following the initial rally, the Day of Mourning was marked every year. It later evolved into NAIDOC week, which solidified the historic day of resistance as an annual, week-long of celebration of survival.

“All of these waves of activism, built on those who came before us,” Mr Patten said proudly.

“Those giants from the past.”

‘On the shoulders of giants’ 

On January 26, hundreds of thousands of Australians now march in solidarity with First Nations people across the country, calling for justice, equality, an end to deaths in custody, and representation in Federal Parliament — many of the same issues pioneers in 1938 were protesting.

Many of the modern protests are led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth carrying on their ancestors’ legacy.

“I will be showing up for my community,” Yorta Yorta, Gunaikurnai and Wiradjuri woman Sky Thomas said.

Sky Thomas stands with her arms crossed, in front of a street art mural in red, yellow and black.
Sky Thomas says more can be done to educate Australians on the impacts of colonisation.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

Sky Thomas is the great-great granddaughter of Margaret Tucker, who was a co-founder of the Aboriginal Advancement League in Melbourne, and a leader in the 1938 protest.

“Talking about Granny Marg’s legacy, it’s one of community — it’s not ‘I’, it’s ‘we’ — to use our power and being able to move forward as a community and caring for each other, looking after each other,” Ms Thomas said.

“Her life’s work has been one of continuous labour towards community. There’s almost an unmoving selflessness she had.”

A black and white photo of 18 members of the Aborigines' Progressive Association at a meeting in a Sydney hall.
Jack Patten (far right) read out the group’s resolution, protesting against the “callous treatment of our people” and calling for equality.(Supplied: State Library of NSW)

Sky said she had witnessed a huge shift in Australia’s perspectives around January 26 and its meaning for First Nations people. But she said there was more to be done to garner greater awareness of the true history — including the impacts of colonisation.

“Education is pinnacle in that, but it’s also about being present, whether that is showing up for community events, whether that is putting your money forward to support community organisations or buying Black, it’s really important,” she said.

For Ms Thomas, January 26 is not just about protest, but a time of reflection and celebration of 65,000 years of continuous survival and culture.

“We’ve survived massacres, we’ve survived cleansing, we’ve survived separation from families,” she said.

“For us to still have our history, our culture, our practices, our language, to still be able to gather as a community, to still be linked up to family is really important and definitely should be celebrated.”

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