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Helena Murphy (2013)

Helena Murphy - 2013 John Curtin Medal recipient Helena Murphy (nee Clarke) - 2013 John Curtin Medal recipient

Born in 1922, Helena Murphy (nee Clarke) is a Western Australian civil rights activist and freedom fighter. She is regarded by many as a national treasure and often referred to as the Rosa Parks of the State's civil rights movement.

Helena is most noted for her part in founding the Coolbaroo League in 1947, a political movement and Indigenous social club that aimed to gain equal rights in post-war Western Australia at a time of extreme racism, before Aboriginal people had gained the right to vote.

Helena founded the League as a young woman in her 20s, when Aboriginal people lived under constant fear of police surveillance, had their children removed and were limited in where they could travel and work. It was also a time when women did not have equal rights, making Helena's courage and impact even more remarkable.

Coolbaroo, a Yamitji word for 'magpie', symbolised the idea of black and white coming together. Although non-Indigenous people could attend Coolbaroo events, only Indigenous people could hold office - a policy aimed at recognising the ability of the Indigenous community to run an exemplary organisation.

Helena and her colleagues fought for the rights of Indigenous Australians on many fronts - including lobbying the government on issues such as the removal of children, citizenship laws, deaths in custody, education and voting rights. One of their intentions was to close down the Moore River settlement and others like it.

Helena used Western Australian daily newspapers effectively as a means of addressing systemic racism and derogatory comments towards Aboriginal people. At one point, she tried to join the airforce and the land army, but was rejected on the grounds that Aboriginal women were not permitted.

By 1960, the Coolbaroo League had grown to become a highly effective Aboriginal-controlled organisation, responsible for - among other things - running the Westralian Aborigine newspaper. Helena and her peers had also successfully established the Western Australian Native Welfare Council.

Throughout her young adult life, Helena's activities were conducted at considerable personal risk, and she was kept under surveillance by the police for her activism.

The Coolbaroo Club inspired a film of the same name, which has been taught in WA secondary school for many years.

Helena moved away from Perth in the early 1950s, after marrying Cyril Murphy, an Indigenous man with family ties to the Kimberley. Together they ran a successful trucking business in Darwin. After her husband's early death at the age of 37, Helena single-handedly raised five children while also owning and operating a large corporate cleaning business that provided employment to many people.

Helena Murphy's fight against injustice has been for all Indigenous Australians and has a particular value in showing that strong Aboriginal women have a deserving place in the history books of Australia. She is a most worthy recipient of the John Curtin Medal for 2013.

Additional information

Arts, Culture and Heritage, have three podcasts in a series ‘Untold Stories of Perth’ that includes an interview with Helena Murphy, which can be accessed here.

There is also a Perth History Centre blog with the same stories, which can be accessed here.