The influence of the US Black Panthers on indigenous activism in Australia and New Zealand from 1969 onwards

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Date: Fall 2014
From: Australian Aboriginal Studies(Vol. 2014, Issue 2)
Publisher: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,313 words
Lexile Measure: 1500L

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Abstract: The means by which ideologies are spread is of growing interest to scholars. In comparative indigenous studies, much attention has been given to the political links that developed throughout the mid to late-twentieth century between activist organisations that sought greater freedom and rights for indigenous or racially marginalised populations. This paper looks at the early contact between American Black Panthers and indigenous activist organisations in Oceania in the 1960s and '70s. It illustrates how various ideological frameworks, such as colour consciousness, and confrontational strategies, such as takeovers, were exchanged during this period. This interaction suggests that Australian and New Zealand indigenous organisations, borrowing from American activists, adapted ideologies and strategies that worked within their local political contexts.

'When the White man hears of Black Power, he shudders--just think what black people have been through all those years under white power.'

(Eric Onus, Chairman of the All-Aboriginal Council of Victoria, in Baker and Mitchell 1969)


By the late 1960s colour consciousness or black consciousness (1) was not new to indigenous politics. For instance, in the 1920s the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association in New South Wales, influenced by black activists in the United States such as Marcus Garvey, had fought for land restitution and the right to enjoy Australian citizenship and to determine their own life direction (Foley 2011). By the 1930s a new organisation in Victoria--the Aborigines Advancement League --led the struggle for justice and the empowerment of Aboriginal Australians. Around this period in New Zealand, the Ratana movement emerged, which advocated equality between Maori and non-Maori, greater Maori representation in the New Zealand Parliament and access to social services. This early-twentieth century activism focused on land rights and civil equality, and activists advanced their cause through similar strategies to those used by non-indigenous activists, such as petitions, letters to the editors of newspapers and pamphlets (Petray 2010:413).

The indigenous activist organisations that emerged in the 1960s marked a break from these older political methods. Eric Onus' comment is emblematic of a shift in indigenous voice towards greater dissent and defiance after the 1960s. Activist groups adopted more confrontational methods and advocated self-determination, liberation, organisation separatism and cultural pride, which pressed the indigenous rights debates through both urgency and fear. These new and more radical political directives and means reflected the circulation of Black Power ideology internationally. In Australia and New Zealand this circulation intensified in the late 1960s with engagements between American civil rights movement leaders--including those who advocated more militant Black Power ideology--and Indigenous leaders in Australia and New Zealand.

Emerging first in the United States, Black Power had split from the black civil rights movement and, under the guidance of prominent figures such as Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, advocated more direct, faster and bolder political actions. The aim was to achieve sovereignty through independent community organisations, rather than integration through existing white-run institutions. White oppression and institutionalised racism were to be eroded in the Black Power perspective by increasing political unity based in colour consciousness...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A408783138