Moree is a little town in the dry northwest of the state of New South Wales in Australia. It is marked by flat countryside and would have been just another unremarkable cotton- and grain-growing town, if not for some embarrassing history.
“Moree was the only town known in Australia that had a written municipal segregation act,” says Noeline Briggs-Smith, a local Aboriginal elder and historian. 2015 marks 50 years since that legislation was challenged and overturned.
Briggs-Smith, with a touch of bitterness, related the segregation she and others of her generation experienced. To this day, there are older Aboriginals who refuse to use the town’s public swimming pool, even though they could benefit from doing so. “We weren’t allowed in before and we aren’t going in now,” they say.
Protest and change
The Moree public swimming pool, with its hot mineral springs, became the centre of anti-discrimination agitation in 1965 when Charles Perkins, one of Australia’s first Aboriginal university graduates, and a group of fellow university students travelled by bus to Moree and staged a protest, demanding equal rights for Aboriginals. The negative publicity put pressure on Moree Shire Council and after it appeared to capitulate, the students triumphantly left town. All was not what it seemed to be, however.
Ann Curthoys, a member of that group of university students, wrote in Australian Geographic in 2010, “Newspaper photographs of black and white children and us students frolicking in the pool were widely published. But after leaving town we learnt that Aboriginal children were again being excluded from the pool. We returned to Moree and went back to the pool with Aboriginal children, but this time there was a huge, hostile crowd. . . . The mayor called a crisis meeting with the student leaders and agreed, if we left
town immediately, that he would move at the next council meeting to have the regulation excluding Aboriginal people from the pool rescinded.”
Three months later, the wording of the Segregation Act was changed to disallow entry into the pool only to persons of “unhygienic appearance,” therefore seemingly allowing Aboriginals access. However, even though the words were changed, the intent was the same.
“Aboriginals back then didn’t have running water in their homes,” says Briggs-Smith, explaining the significance of the changed words.
And it wasn’t just the pool. Segregation in Moree extended to the hospital, schools, businesses and even the cemetery.
The issue of race
The Segregation Act was an ugly part of Moree’s history, but racism is not unique to this little town. As a child of immigrants, I grew up with racism and remember eggs being thrown at our house and being called names by the children in my street.
Interestingly, God was the Author of the first anti-discrimination laws ever recorded. As part of the instruction given to Israel through Moses, He said, “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). Earlier, God even specified that the “foreigner” was to have the benefits of the same laws as the Israelites: “The same law applies both to the nativeborn and to the foreigner residing among you” (Exodus 12:49).
When we go back to our origins, we understand why. All people groups, regardless of colour, features or culture, are descended from the first humans God created, Adam and Eve. In essence, there is only one race: the human race.
As Robert Lee Hotz said in the Cincinnati Enquirer, “Scientists today admit that, biologically, there really is only one race of humans. For instance, a scientist at the Advancement of Science Convention in Atlanta stated, ‘Race is a social construct derived mainly from perceptions conditioned by events of recorded history, and it has no basic biological reality.’ This person went on to say, ‘Curiously enough, the idea comes very close to being of American manufacture.’ ”
A common brotherhood
Racism being of American manufacture is a curious conclusion, but prejudice based on nationality is not a modern problem. Jesus had to face it and He dealt with it through the story of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, a Samaritan was commended for his kindness to a Jewish traveller who had been the victim of assault and robbery. It might have just been a sweet story if it hadn’t been for the nationality of the story’s hero.
The Samaritans were despised by the Jews, but the punchline of Jesus’ story was that a Samaritan— and not a fellow Jew or even a religious leader—was the only one who helped the traveller. It illustrated the truth that any human is capable of love and compassion, regardless of nationality or race. As the apostle Luke wrote, “God who made the world and everything in it . . . he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth” (Acts 17:24, 26).
And as the apostle Paul reaffirmed, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him” (Romans 10:12).
There is something within the sinful human nature that craves supremacy. Unfortunately, as is demonstrated through acts of racism, the attempt to raise oneself has often been based on pushing other people down.
The well-known Bible verse, John 3:16, declares that “whoever believes in him [Jesus] shall not perish but have eternal life” (italics added). God is inclusive. He loves all of us, His created children, equally. And if God is Father of us all, we will recognise that all humanity shares a common brotherhood, regardless of colour or culture.
Maybe, if the Moree town leaders had understood that, they would have treated the Aboriginal community differently.