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Daring to lead

By Stephen Hagan - posted Thursday, 1 March 2007

Towards the end of last year I observed letters to the editor and opinion pieces in national media that posed more questions than answers on the ongoing debate over Indigenous leadership. One thing that has become patently obvious to me is the palpable frustration in the tone of these recurring letters.

I too am equally bemused by the apparent dearth in leadership at the national level - that’s not to recoil from the tremendous work being done by committed Indigenous leaders at the local, regional and state level.

To many I guess the failure of our national elected body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), and the lack of credibility of its government appointed Indigenous successor, the National Indigenous Council (NIC), have only served to exacerbate the apparent national crisis.


But is it really a crisis of our own creation and are we becoming just a tad alarmist with our concerns?

From my standpoint I’m more inclined to think that Indigenous people, especially baby boomers who’ve had a close eye on the changing political fortunes in Indigenous affairs over many decades, have unintentionally developed an unhealthy fixation on matching any new face, that comes onto the national scene, against our charismatic leader of the past, Charlie Perkins.

Alas - we are not alone!

In chorus across the globe politically astute representatives of marginalised groups are also crying out for a Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr or a Nelson Mandela to step forward and lead them through their current crisis of leadership.

During my time recently in San Francisco and other parts of California I decided to probe into the leadership debate of the United States; especially within the Native American and African American groups.

When I enquired about Martin Luther King Jr I was constantly reminded I that I must first get acquainted with the story of the founding symbol of the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks; a black seamstress who refused to relinquish her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955.


On Montgomery buses back then, the first four rows were reserved for whites. The rear was for blacks, who made up more than 75 per cent of the bus system’s riders. Blacks could sit in the middle rows until those seats were needed by whites. Then the blacks had to move to seats in the rear, stand or, if there was no room, leave the bus. Even getting on the bus presented hurdles: if whites were already sitting in the front, blacks could board to pay the fare but then they had to disembark and re-enter through the rear door.

At a church rally soon after Ms Parks’ eviction from the bus and subsequent arrest, blacks unanimously agreed to boycott the buses until their demands were met: that they be treated with courtesy, that black drivers be hired, and that seating in the middle of the bus go on a first-come basis.

The boycott lasted 381 days, and in that period many blacks were harassed and arrested on flimsy excuses. Finally, on November 13, 1956, in Browder v Gayle, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation on buses.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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