Sol Bellear

We passed a milestone on the long path of black and white Australia this week, though it wasn’t the one everyone thought — the 25th anniversary of Paul Keating’s Redfern speech — but something else.

On Friday, there was a state funeral in Sydney for Sol Bellear, and, on the weekend, a quieter ceremony in Canberra for the passing of Denis Walker — two Black Power Aboriginal leaders whose names once struck fear into the hearts of tabloid newspaper readers in the 1970s, as visions of a black uprising were conjured up in double-page spreads.

For the most part, the Australian Black Power movement was about building black community, autonomy and resistance; but naive, and willing, reporters could always be gulled into believing that the revolution was just ’round the corner. Bellear and Walker were two mainstays of a movement that, as such movements do, produced many people, radicalised and risen up by the demands politics makes. Bellear got a state funeral; Walker some brief notices. It is worth remembering, through what follows, that some will get nothing at all.

Black Power emerged as a distinct movement in the late 1960s, and largely in the cities, as Aboriginal people — who before the mid-1960s could not travel out of their “district” without official permission — came to Sydney and Brisbane, especially. Much campaigning at the time was reformist and petitioning, as expressed in the name of the main body, the Aborigines Advancement League. Black Power as a self-conscious movement came out of a series of increasingly tense struggles with a violent police force in Redfern, and the virtual police state of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland. From the start, it saw itself as part of a global movement, not denying the special condition of Aboriginal Australia, but keen to connect to the idea that blackness was a global historical condition, covering many ethnicities.

Thus in Sydney, Bellear, originally from northern New South Wales, and others, focused on establishing Aboriginal health and medical services — as well as citizen patrols to keep an eye on racist cops. In Brisbane, Denis Walker and others were essentially living in a war zone, and established the Black Panther Party of Australia.

In 1970, Bellear, Gary Foley, the playwright Jack Davis and others attended a major Black Power conference in Atlanta. “Sol was a big man, and he came back from that with the biggest afro I have ever seen,” Foley observed. “But what was important was he had the best understanding of all of us of the black power movement, and the politics of what we were doing, and he imparted that.”

Bellear’s brother Bob became the first Aboriginal judge; Sol turned out for South Sydney Rabbitohs and was dropped by them for giving a Black Power salute. The newspaper reports were as one in noting that, years later, he became a member of the Rabbitohs board. It was Bellear who, in 1992, would bring Keating on stage to deliver the Redfern speech.

Yes and it’s the usual thing, all good stories in the obits — but all directed to the idea that “it all turned out alright in the end, didn’t it?”. But what oppression and pain that covers over — a potential sports career gone for one gesture, as one small example — and what the oppressed always face: that there is no path to life but through political struggle, that life itself is the luxury. The different fates and different memorials of Bellear and Walker are instructive here: Walker did his fair share of direct community-building too. But he retreated from public life in recent decades due to damage of various types acquired in prison. The desire to join the Black Power era to the present was palpable in all reports.

But it can’t be, straightforwardly. “We achieved more in the Black Power era than before or since,” Foley noted, “and it was done through independent action.” The lives and passing of Bellear and Walker, on the Redfern speech anniversary, foreground a question that can’t be ducked anymore: has the era in which “native title”, “nations” and the like have become the main organising principle, served the cause as well as a movement that emphasised the unity of the oppressed?

Black power, here and elsewhere, took an imposed category and made it one, subjective and owned by those it sought to limit and enclose. I am just about the whitest person around to ask this, but in such a week it can’t really be avoided: is it better to take power and gain recognition from your enemy for that act, than to seek recognition from the enemy in the hope that with it, power will also be granted?