By Barry York
Fifty years ago this week, Lionel Rose became the first Aboriginal Australian to win a world championship.
On 26 February 1968, he defeated Masahiko ‘Fighting’ Harada in Japan for the world bantamweight boxing title.
His success occurred nine months after the historic Referendum of 1967, which gave the Commonwealth Government the power to legislate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and to include all Indigenous Australians in official estimates of the Australian population.
Rose’s win was a huge event for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike, but more so for Aboriginal Australia.
Warren Mundine, in his recently published autobiography In Black and White, recalls: ‘Lionel Rose’s boxing match in Tokyo taught me that knowing your place was just a state of mind … My family and I screamed and yelled and danced around the room. An Aboriginal had become the undisputed world champion … [We] were on top of the world for days, for months, for years … An Aboriginal boy from a shanty town called Jackson’s Track on the other side of the world being glorified … He had won the world championship. If he could do it, then why not me? Lionel Rose didn’t know his place’.
One hundred thousand people crowded into the centre of Melbourne CBD to welcome Rose back to Australia. On remembering this enormous excitement, it is worth reflecting on the progress made in Aboriginal affairs over the past five decades.
In 1968, when Lionel Rose became a household name, there were no Aboriginal land rights in law. Today, more than 20% of Australia – about 1.6 million square kilometres – is owned by Indigenous peoples under Native Title and statutory land rights schemes. The first federal land rights legislation passed through parliament in 1976.
Progress would not have happened without the determination and struggles of Aboriginal people themselves, going back to great leaders like William Cooper, Fred Maynard, Jack Patten, Margaret Tucker, Pastor Doug Nicholls, Pearl Gibbs, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Bill and Eric Onus and Shirley Smith (‘Mum Shirl’) who campaigned with their non-Aboriginal supporters like Faith Bandler and Jessie Street.
Two years prior to Rose’s championship, headlines were made when Charles Perkins became the first Aboriginal man to obtain a full university degree. Today, there are 35,000 Indigenous Australians with university degrees and 18,000 currently enrolled in university courses.
In 1971, the first national census conducted after the 1967 Referendum found that there were 120,000 Indigenous people in Australia. Today, there are 650,000, mostly resident in cities and regional centres.
In 1968, when Rose won the title, there were no Indigenous Australians in the federal parliament and never had been. Today there are four. While Indigenous people constitute 2.8% of the Australian population they make up 2.2% of federal parliamentarians.
There are many other areas where progress has occurred, but 50 years on we must continue to confront the negatives: the ongoing scandalous and disproportionate poor health and high suicide rates, absence of economic opportunity, poverty, racism, domestic violence, high mortality, low literacy and numeracy, and high overcrowding. Rates of child abuse and adult imprisonment have increased. Indigenous Australians are 27% of the prisoner population in Australia.
An Aboriginal woman is 34-80 times more likely to be subject to violence than non-Indigenous women. Indigenous children are seven times more likely to be receiving child protection services than non-Indigenous children.
It should be pointed out that the problems particularly affect remote communities and are not as bad in the urban and regional centres, where the majority of Indigenous Australians live and work. This has led to the Yothu Yindi Foundation recently calling on the Productivity Commission to change its definition of ‘Aboriginality’ in the distribution of GST revenue to focus on disadvantaged remote communities.
Lionel Rose was one of our greatest boxers and sportspeople. Five decades on, there are many other champions of Indigenous background in a range of sports. But so too there are now surgeons, academics, university administrators, writers, mathematicians, singers, judges, dancers, technologists, fashion designers and models, scientists, film makers, actors, senior public servants, dentists, pilots, celebrated musicians and artists and prominent journalists.
As the best in his field, Rose was a rolemodel. Despite the ongoing problems of disproportionate disadvantage in Australian society, there is no shortage of positive Aboriginal rolemodels today. But there is still a very long way to go.
* Barry York wrote this article on behalf of The Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. The NIT thanks Mr York for the opportunity to reproduce it.