The story of the Indigenous Elder William Cooper may not be widely known, but it is a story of courage, humanity and inspiration.
William Cooper (1860 – 1941) was a Yorta Yorta man, an Aboriginal activist and a human rights advocate. He was the founder of the Australian Aborigines League and he is also known as the Father of the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC), an annual event that is celebrated to this day.
In March 2018 a bronze statue of William Cooper was unveiled at the Queens Gardens in Shepparton. At the official ceremony, the Executive Chair of the Kaiela Institute, fellow Yorta Yorta Elder Paul Briggs said, “The unveiling of this statue is a symbolic testament to Uncle William’s character, values, and enormous contribution to humanity and to the survival of the Yorta Yorta people.”
But it wasn’t just his own people that Uncle William was concerned for. His actions in the lead-up to the Second World War hold a very special place in the collective memory of the Jewish community in Australia.
In late 1938 an infamous event, Kristallnacht, took place in Germany (“The Night of Broken Glass”, when German Jews were attacked, arrested and taken to Nazi concentration camps). After learning about it, William Cooper petitioned the German Consulate in Melbourne, protesting at the appalling treatment of Jews at the hands of the Nazi Party and demanding that they stop such persecution. The Consulate did not accept the petition.
Here was an individual who practically had no rights in his own country at that time, and yet was empathizing with the plight of people persecuted a world away.
The statue in Shepparton depicts William Cooper marching to the German Consulate, holding a petition in his hand. The original petition read: “On behalf of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia, we wish to have it registered and on record that we protest wholeheartedly at the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government in Germany. We plead that you would make it known to your government and its military leaders that this cruel persecution of their fellow citizens must be brought to an end.”
The funds for the statue were raised through the William Cooper Memorial Committee, led by the Director of Catholic Education Sandhurst, Paul Desmond. Gandel Foundation was one of the supporters to ensure this lasting memorial to Uncle William can be erected, together with other funders such as the Australian Community Foundation, the Beecher Family Fund, as well as numerous local donors.