Australian Black Panthers Poster #2014-0233
Poster featuring a black and white photograph and the inscription ‘Australian Black Panthers.’
The Australian Black Panther Party was founded in 1972 by Denis Walker, the son of prominent Indigenous poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) and Sam Watson. The Black Panthers were a Black Power organisation, inspired by American groups with the same name, and were far more aggressive and militant than most Indigenous groups had been to that time. The Panthers viewed themselves as defenders of the Indigenous community and demanded, as their American colleagues did for their own groups, a referendum on self-determination for Indigenous people. They were concerned with land rights, citizenship and fighting what they saw as injustices perpetrated against Indigenous people by the white majority.
Though separate from the Black Power movement in the United States, the Australian Black Panthers adopted many of that movement’s traditions and icons, such as ‘afro’ hairstyles and the use of African-American slang such as ‘whitey’ and ‘honky’.
Bain Attwood (2003, pp. 323-324) writes:
In 1969 [Bruce] McGuiness claimed that [U.S. black activist Stokely] Carmichael’s ‘Black Power’ ‘should be a prized possession of every Aborigine’ and urged ‘all Koories’ to buy it. In summarising its definition of black power he emphasised the importance of Aborigines ‘get[ting] together [to] force white power to meet their legitimate needs’, having leadership responsive to black needs, attaining ‘independence’ by the ‘labor [sic] of self-discovery, self-naming and self-legitimisation’ and building their own institutions, instilling pride, and, most of all, developing the attitudes favourable to the seizing and retention of power’. In affirming this new, positive sense of blackness, style, especially in clothes, were important. Activists donned black berets, jackets, jeans and dark glasses, and wore black power badges.
Black power became a means of articulating the demand for a greater Aboriginal role in the struggle for Aboriginal rights. Its rise served to heighten this demand by expressing it in terms of ‘Aboriginal control’. At first, though, black power was merely seen in terms of Aboriginal people playing a greater role in their own affairs.
Key demands of the Black Panthers were employment, education, housing, exemption from military service, release of Indigenous prisoners and the use of Indigenous juries to try Indigenous defendants. Perhaps most controversially, they demanded a United Nations-sponsored plebiscite for Indigenous people on whether to remain as part of Australia. The leaders of the group, known as the ‘Field Marshals’ included Gary Foley and Paul Coe and many of these leaders threatened violence. Foley said ‘We want land rights now, and then the black man can assimilate, integrate or live separately. But he must be able to choose for himself.’ (Broome, 2010, pp. 228-229).
This was in the same year that the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which also advocated for land rights, was established; the Tent Embassy had similar goals but different methods for achieving them.
While they were not solely responsible for the eventual adoption of land rights laws by the Whitlam Labor government or the increased attention given to Indigenous issues, the Black Panthers played a role in making their issues part of the national agenda.