Illustration: John Spooner
ARTHUR Murray died the other day. I turned to Google Australia for tributes, and there was a 1991 obituary of an American ballroom instructor of the same name.
There was nothing in the Australian media. The Australian newspaper published a large, rictal image of its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, handing out awards to his employees. Arthur would have understood the silence.
I first met Arthur a generation ago and knew he was the best kind of trouble. He objected to the cruelty and hypocrisy of white society in a country where his people had lived longer than human beings had lived anywhere.
In 1969, he and Leila brought their family to the town of Wee Waa in New South Wales and camped beside the Namoi River.Arthur worked in the cotton fields for $1.12 an hour. Only ''itinerant blackfellas'' were recruited for such a pittance; only whites had unions in the land of the ''fair go."
Working conditions were primitive and dangerous. ''The crop-sprayers used to fly so low,'' he told me. ''We had to lie face down in the mud or our heads would've been chopped off. The insecticide was dumped on us, and for days we'd be coughing and chucking it up.''
Arthur and the cotton-chippers made history. They went on strike, and more than 500 of them marched through Wee Waa.
The Wee Waa Echo called them ''radicals and professional troublemakers," adding ''it is not fanciful to see the Aboriginal problem as the powder keg for Communist aggression in Australia.''
Abused as ''boongs'' and ''niggers,'' the Murrays' riverside camp was attacked and the workers' tents smashed or burnt down.
Although food was collected for the strikers, hunger united their families. Leila would wake before sunrise to light a wood fire that cooked the little food they had and to heat a 44-gallon drum, cut in half lengthways, and filled with water that the children brought in buckets from the river for their morning bath. With her ancient flat iron she pressed their clothes, so that they went to school ''spotless,'' as she would say.
''Who in the town supported you?'' I asked Arthur. He thought for a while. ''There was a chemist,'' he said, ''who was kind to Aboriginal people. Mostly we were on our own.'' Soon after the cotton workers won an hourly rate of $1.45, Arthur was arrested for trespassing in the grounds of the RSL Club.
His defence shocked the town; it was land rights. All of Australia was Aboriginal land, he said.
On June 12, 1981, Arthur and Leila's son, Eddie, aged 21, was drinking with some friends in a park in Wee Waa. He was a star footballer, optimistic of touring New Zealand with the Redfern All Blacks rugby league team. At 1.45pm he was picked up by the police for nothing but drunkenness. Within an hour he was dead in a cell, with a blanket tied round his neck.
At the inquest, the coroner described police evidence as ''highly suspicious'' and records were found to have been falsified. Eddie, he said, had died ''by his own hand or by the hand of a person or persons unknown.'' It was a craven finding familiar to Aboriginal Australians.
Everyone knew Eddie had too much to live for.
Arthur and Leila set out on an extraordinary journey for justice for their son and their people.
They endured the ignorance and indifference of white society and its multi-layered political and judicial bureaucracies. They won a royal commission, only to see the royal commissioner, a judge, suddenly appointed to a top government administrative job in the critical final stages of the hearing.
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