An unsung hero of Aboriginal rights in Australia

Sharing the story of Bill Ferguson, a pioneering campaigner from the bush

When I first met “Riverbank” Frank Doolan on the streets of outback Bourke, he was an angry young man. I was fresh from Sydney and new to the bush. It was 1980 and the local indigenous population was militant and struggling for recognition. I was ignorant and unaware of the history that had caused them so much pain.

There was a divide between Frank and I and we both had a lot to learn. Neither of us knew at the time that an inspired leader of the Aboriginal people named William Ferguson would step out of the past to be our teacher (read Frank’s poem about William Ferguson below).

A leader who was part of a civil rights movement during the 1930s and 1940s which led to better recognition of Aboriginal people in Australia – and the birth of what has become NAIDOC Week.

Bill Ferguson witnessed the appalling treatment of Aboriginal people and it made the cry for justice burn in him

It was a very unusual event when the Reverend John Gribble married the fiercely independent Scottish boundary rider and shearer, William Ferguson Snr to Aboriginal woman Emily Ford, in Jerilderie, New South Wales, in 1879.

They always displayed their wedding certificate at the door of their home as a pointed statement against the misuse of Aboriginal girls common at the time.

Gribble’s Warangesda Mission at Darlington Point became one of the few safe places in NSW for Aboriginal people and it was there the Ferguson children went to school.

When their son Bill turned fourteen, he joined his Dad working in Riverina shearing sheds at a tumultuous time in the industry. In this tough arena, his father taught him to stand up for himself with his fists – and modelled a robust Christian faith. And it was in this sweaty, unforgiving world that the witty Irish MLA Patrick McGarry trained young Bill to speak out against the exploitation of his fellow-workers – both black and white – as an Australian Workers’ Union representative.

Travelling widely in the bush, he witnessed the appalling treatment of Aboriginal people and it made the cry for justice burn in him. By 1936, Bill had decided that he needed to throw himself into organising a serious effort to break the shackles which bound his indigenous brothers.

Having settled his wife Margret – a woman of similar background to himself – and his ten children in Dubbo, Bill set his AWU experience to work on behalf of his mother’s Wiradjuri people.

True son of a Scot, his sincere faith quickly won respect in the Presbyterian community. In a move remarkable for the time, he was appointed an elder. Ministers commented on his intelligence and his thirst for knowledge and the regular Bible studies held in his home were known to have inspired and strengthened his resolve as an activist.

Bill Ferguson was methodical. He patiently constructed a network of informants across the back country who helped him gather a mass of damning information about the shortcomings of missions administered by the Aboriginal Protection Board. Evidence of poor schooling, rampant tuberculosis, rations withheld, low wages plus sexual and physical abuse, supplied more than enough ammunition for a challenge at state government level.

On June 27, 1937, Bill Ferguson called a public meeting in Dubbo’s Masonic Hall to form the Aborigines’ Progressive Association. A packed audience made up of mostly Aboriginal people heard him eloquently detail their sufferings, cleverly appealing for practical changes they could identify with. His aim was true – the motion demanding the removal of the Protection Board and full citizenship rights, was carried unanimously and he spent the rest of the year on the road recruiting support.

… When the discoveries began to shame the state government, members decided to boycott the hearing!

Mark Davidson, the Catholic MLA for Cobar and Bourke, manoeuvred to establish a Select Committee of Inquiry. This Select Committee sat from 17 November, 1937, to 17 February, 1938, where Ferguson’s team set about presenting their findings. It was the first time their case had been heard at this level.

According to one source, when the discoveries began to shame the state government, members decided to boycott the hearing!

In response, an irate Ferguson packed the benches with church leaders, women’s organisations and journalists to witness the disgraceful absence of any government representatives. The man trained to speak in the shearing sheds, was blunt: “We must educate the minds of the white people, otherwise the thrusting back of my people, which began 150 years ago, will continue – until they are swept off the face of the earth.”

Ferguson’s words carried the echo of another powerful voice – the prophet Amos, who also knew a thing or two about sheep (he was a shepherd). Amos spoke out against the exploitation of the poor in Israel nearly 2500 years before Ferguson. “Let justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” (Amos 5:24)

In 1938, veteran Victorian indigenous leader, William Cooper, discouraged by the lack of response to his dignified, biblical pleas to be treated equally as children of God – decided to take drastic action. Australia Day was to be a gala celebration of the European settlement but he declared a Day of Mourning – the first public civil rights demonstration in Australia’s history.

Bill Ferguson fronted the protest and, flanked by William Cooper, Jack Patten, Doug Nicholls and others – a number of whom were Christians – they demanded new laws for the education and care of their people. They also called for acceptance as citizens in the land they had occupied for thousands of years.

“My father died of a broken heart.” – Isobel Ferguson

When William Cooper and William Ferguson were instrumental in launching Aborigines’ Sunday in churches in 1940 – the forerunner of NAIDOC Week – they believed a Day of Hope was near.

Cooper wrote, “We have suffered enough, God knows, but surely the day of our deliverance is drawing nigh. I hope I live to see it.” Sadly, both men died without seeing their dreams fulfilled and thirty years were to pass before justice rolled down for the Aboriginal people – with a resounding ‘Yes’ vote in the 1967 Referendum.

Isobel Ferguson, Bill’s daughter, told me simply: “My father died of a broken heart.”

It was thirty years after this Referendum granted citizenship to the Aboriginal people that Frank and I met again and discovered that Isobel’s brother John had challenged each of us separately to rescue their father’s forgotten story.

We set ourselves to bring this invisible story of Bill Ferguson back into the hearts and minds of all Australians.

In June this year, family and friends were present to witness the unveiling of artist Brett Garling’s bronze statue of the determined civil rights hero. Ferguson’s statue is a daily reminder to passers-by in Dubbo, of the need for genuine reconciliation between all sectors of the community.

In the centre of Dubbo, Ferguson stands as he had done many times in Sydney’s Domain – rolled newspaper in hand, calling for justice.

“We have lived out the reconciliation William [Ferguson- fought for …” – Frank Doolan

As Frank and I have carried the narrative into schools and churches, William Ferguson’s faith and courage has changed us – me with my Anglo-Scots heritage and ‘Riverbank’ Frank with his Wiradjuri-Irish background.

I had to look my brother in the eyes and tell him I understood why he had been angry about the treatment of his people and to ask his forgiveness for my moments of prejudice. Frank has admitted to what he calls poetically, “reverse racism”. There have been many moments as we work together that we’ve needed to stop and really listen to one another. In Frank’s words, “We have lived out the reconciliation William fought for, in front of the children.”

We always make a point of gripping hands – the white hand and the black hand – made brothers by the same Jesus that inspired William Ferguson.

Thirty years after William raised his voice in the back country of Australia, Rev Dr Martin Luther King, the great African-American civil rights campaigner, stabbed the world awake with his ringing call. “I have a dream that one day my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” I’m certain these two men of faith could stand shoulder to shoulder on any platform, both as brothers and fighters for justice.

So how can we keep their dreams alive? Another friend and indigenous brother of mine, Billy Williams, likes to say: “We need to share our stories, accept our stories and write a new story together.”

Ferguson’s Australia

by Riverbank” Frank Doolan

When William Ferguson experienced

Racial discrimination

It set him on a lifetime path

To improve the situation

He saw his cousins at a shearing shed

Being paid much less than him

His Scottish father explained

It’s the colour of their skin


Ferguson was shaken to the core

His own dear Mother was Black

A Freedom Fighter was born

There was no turning back!

He came before Charles Perkins

Long before all the rest

A champion for the working man

From the New South Wales mid west


’Though William Ferguson was asking for

The very basic things

In truth, this humble battler was

Australia’s Martin Luther King

The Day of Mourning was intended

To become the Day of Hope

We’re entrusted with a dream

It’s really no joke!


To celebrate William Ferguson

To really honour his life

We all need to work much harder

To fix this racial strife

If we live like Ferguson espoused

With real equality

We’ll soon realise Australia’s big enough

For both you and me.


William Ferguson had courage

William Ferguson had faith

He knew one day Australia

Would be a better place

He stood with the downtrodden

He stood for equal rights

A fair dinkum Australian Hero

For both the Black man and the White.

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