William Cooper was an influential Yorta Yorta man, an activist for the rights of varying people.
He was born by the banks of the Murray River in 1860 where his mother, Kitty, who was a traditional Wallithica women had lived in the Moira Forest before meeting his father who was a man called James Cooper.
Kitty spoke a dialect of Yorta-Yorta and it became William’s mother tongue too.
He lived in Yarrawonga in the early 1900s with his family where he owned a fish and chip shop and educated the locals on indigenous culture and their way of the land.
On Tuesday, March 27, 2018 seventy-seven years after his death, hundreds of people including school students from across the region, community organisations and councillors gathered at Shepparton’s Queen’s Gardens for the unveiling of the William Cooper memorial statue.
Mr Cooper’s grandson Uncle Alf ‘Boydie’ Turner and great-granddaughter Nola Kelly performed a Welcome to Country, a traditional indigenous smoking ceremony was performed accompanied by some traditional music and dancing displaying local Aboriginal culture, Graham Briggs played the didgeridoo and wood blocks and Talyssa Baker treated the crowd to a special rendition of You Are My Sunshine, sung in Yorta Yorta language.
The Master of ceremonies was Leonie Drummond great-granddaughter of William and Julie Ferguson great-great-granddaughter who both spoke of the importance of the statue and how proud they were to be related to a man who advocated for equality and human rights for all.
In 1934, William began the first broad-based Aboriginal petition, collecting 1814 signatures from varying areas of Australia which was addressed to King George V.
He was later able to demand a meeting with Prime Minster Lyons.
In months and years to follow he was also able to persuade the churches to set aside a Sunday to pray for Aboriginal welfare, justice and understanding of the Gospel of Jesus.
In December 1938 the passionate Indigenous man from the Murray River began a march from Southampton Street Footscray to make a simple demand for justice at the government offices at Collins Street in Melbourne.
But this wasn’t a protest to defend Aborigines.
It was a protest to defend Jews.
And it wasn’t against a state or Federal government.
It was against the German Government.
With his friends from the Australian Aborigines’ League, a movement which he had started in his 70s and a society which long after his own death would lead to the famous 1967 referendum, William set out to stand up to Hitler.
The action followed the night of “broken glass” on November 9 and 10 1938.
In that shocking 24 hours, Adolf Hitler’s Sturmabteilung, rampaged through the streets of Germany looting, burning and smashing Jewish stores, buildings and synagogues. In just mere hours, nearly 100 Jews were killed and approximately 30,000 were incarcerated in concentration camps.
Across the country Australians were stunned as they read the stories in their newspapers.
But William stood up, gathered his Indigenous friends and family from Fitzroy and Footscray, and they walked.
Once they arrived at the consulate he demanded a meeting with Doctor Drechsler, the General Consul of the Reichs Consulate to speak against the Nazi mistreatment of Jews.
But when they got to the door the Nazi administration wouldn’t let them in.
This march became one of a kind.
It had not happened in London, Paris nor New York but instead occurred in Melbourne, organised by peoples who weren’t even citizens in their own country.
Although nothing really came of William’s march and Hitler continued to commit genocide against the Jews, it was an act that showed the heart of a man who had been dealt blows within his own race.
He learnt to fearlessly speak to the face of power for what he believed in and from that was able to get the attention of any newspaper, church leader or politician in the country.
William raised seven children, one of his sons who was well-known for his athletic prowess, Lynch Cooper had aspired to win the Stawell Gift but this goal alluded him for several years until he was finally successful in 1928.
A year later he was picked in the world professional sprint championship where he became the first Aboriginal to win a world sporting title.
Another of William’s sons Daniel, who was named after one of William’s inspirations Daniel Matthews who once stood up to save his people, was killed in action in WW1 and his name now appears on the Yarrawonga war memorial.
Although performing many acts of activism for his people and raising seven children who all honoured his legacy in differing ways after his death, William Cooper hardly saw any signs of advancement for Indigenous peoples.
He greatly feared that his people may be completely wiped out and he told the King as much in his petition.
His demands for land were met – then taken away. There was no sign that Indigenous people would ever be recognised as citizens either. He had many heartbreaks and disappointments but longed for heaven and the justice of God.
By the time he died in 1941, he was a political leader who could successfully demand a face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister, however his people were still strangers to their own land.
Throughout Yarrawonga his story has not been widely known however, it is to be noted that he played a big part in the Indigenous presence in the area.