9 July 2021
Dr Gary Foley is a founder of the Aboriginal Legal Service. To mark our 50th anniversary, we asked him to share his recollections of the racial justice movement in the 1970s and how the ALS began. Below is Part 1 of his essay, White Police and Black Power: The Origins of the Aboriginal Legal Service.
"Liberties are not given, they are taken." -Aldous Huxley
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of founding of the Aboriginal Legal Service, it is appropriate that we be reminded of the dramatic manner in which the service came into being.
It also affords the opportunity to acknowledge the Aboriginal people who were the founding fathers and mothers of not only the first Aboriginal Legal Service in Australia, but also in doing so they had created the first free shop-front legal aid centre in the country.
Many of those early Aboriginal activists are now deceased and deserve acknowledgement and recognition for their work.
This essay not only honours the original founders of the ALS, it also examines the context of the times that saw the service develop and emerge. That in itself is part of an important era of Australian history in which Aboriginal issues came to the forefront of Australian politics for the first time in a significant way.
The newly formed ALS was to be at the centre and forefront of the tumultuous events that led up to the 1972 Aboriginal Embassy protest in Canberra, which in turn brought an end to the assimilationist era that had dominated government Aboriginal affairs policies for the previous hundred years.
It was a revolutionary body in the sense that it was a completely new concept of Aboriginal organisation. Previously virtually all organisations and agencies that purported to exist for the "benefit” of Aboriginal peoples had been (and were still then) dominated and controlled by white administrators and white staff.
The policies of such organisations were created by non-Aboriginal people and were invariably in accordance with governmental assimilationist policies and were primarily focussed on welfare and education issues. It might be noted that education was a key component of the policy to indoctrinate Aboriginal children into accepting and absorbing the Anglo-Celtic values that the eugenicist-inspired policy of assimilation required.
Aboriginal people had no say in their own destinies, either as individuals or groups. Therefore, the emergence of an Aboriginal organisation that had evolved from within the Aboriginal community and was now being successfully administered and controlled by Aboriginal people was quite a revolutionary idea back then.
These new organisations were ones which would evolve out of community needs as determined by any given Aboriginal community. A concept in which any organisation developed to meet or alleviate those needs or problems would be overseen and controlled by community members. When the organisation was created, it would be administered and controlled by an Aboriginal Board of Directors drawn from the specific given community.
In that way it was believed that the organisation would not only be Aboriginal controlled, but also be directly accountable to the community by way of every community member being able to vote at an AGM.
These new types of organisations were described by their founders as Aboriginal community-controlled survival programs in the sense that they were seen as merely stop-gap measures created to ensure the survival of the community until such times as the concept of genuine land rights was established.