National Museum honours protester Jimmy Clements

Wiradjuri and Brungle man Jimmy Clements on the steps of Parliament House, in the first recorded act of Aboriginal protest there.

A new exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, opened on Wednesday, shows a collection honouring the work undertaken by Aboriginal activists in the lead up to the 1967 referendum.

One of the items is a nulla, or club, belonging to Jimmy Clements, known as ‘King Billy,’ a Wiradjuri man who walked from the Brungle Mission to Canberra for the opening of Parliament House in 1927.

He was one of only two Indigenous people present at the opening, and was not invited. Rather, he did it as an act of protest, to demonstrate “his sovereign rights to the Federal Territory,” as he told a newspaper from the time.

“Immediately and instinctively the crowd in the stands rallied to his side,” records the Argus of May 9, 1927.

“There were choruses of advice and encouragement for him to do as he pleased. A well-known clergyman stood up and called out that the Aborigine had a better right than any man present to a place on the steps of the house of parliament.”

Police tried to remove him – an eighty-year-old man – from the opening, but he refused to leave. It was what the National Archives of Australia describes as “the first recorded instance of Aboriginal protest at Parliament House in Canberra.”

“Since then, Parliament House has been famous for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which was erected on the lawn outside on Australia Day (26 January) in 1972 as part of Aboriginal protests about land rights,” the archive says.

“Jimmy Clements’ protest was a forerunner of significant Indigenous claims in the late 20th century, including the successful Mabo claim for ownership of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait and a claim by the Wik peoples for ownership of their land on Cape York Peninsula in Queensland.”

The National Museum of Australia exhibition will be open until January 30, 2018.