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Activist links citizenship and social service benefits

Aboriginal activist Shadrach Livingstone James petitioned the prime minister for federal citizenship rights for Aboriginal people. This included access to social security benefits and services.

Were we granted citizen rights, we would be entitled to Maternity allowances, the old age and invalid pensions, child endowment, the right to vote and other blessings which we do not now enjoy.

Shadrach Livingstone James, 27 August 1945, p 2
About the artefact

After the Second World War, Aboriginal activism focused on gaining federal citizenship rights and representation for Aboriginal people. Federal citizenship rights would also give Aboriginal people access to social services and government payments. Activists wanted rights at the national level, as the states and territories all had different laws about Aboriginal people.

Yorta Yorta man Shadrach Livingstone James was from Cummeragunja and was an activist and teacher working with the Aborigines Progressive Association of Victoria. He was also a founding member of the Victorian Australian Aborigines Advancement League.

Shadrach L James’s letter

James wrote this letter to Prime Minister Ben Chifley in 1945. In it, he rejected the view that ‘the aborigines [sic] are not fit and proper persons to receive citizen rights’. He pointed out the importance of full citizenship rights for Aboriginal people. He wrote:

Were we granted citizen rights we would be entitled to maternity allowances, the old age and invalid pensions, child endowment, the right to vote and other blessings which we do not now enjoy.

James proposed categorisations or classes of Aboriginal people based on their ways of life. This was different from racialised categories that were imposed on Aboriginal people by state and territory authorities. James wanted Aboriginal people to make decisions about other Aboriginal people’s needs. He wrote:

As the original owners of this country we should have a share in the administration of our own race ...

As well as these things, James called for federal government control of Aboriginal affairs, for educational and training opportunities, and for land to be granted to Aboriginal servicemen returning from the war.

Copy of letter by Shadrach Livingstone James 1945, page 2
Second page of letter by Shadrach L James to prime minister, 27 August 1945.

The response from the Department of Social Services Director-General Francis H Rowe to the Prime Ministers’ Department expressed support for James’s proposal for federal control of Aboriginal people’s affairs.

Activism for civil rights

This letter is an example of Aboriginal activism in which citizenship rights were linked with access to social security payments. Other examples of activism from around this time period are the Aborigines Progressive Association’s publication and Pearl Gibbs’s letter to the Minister for Social Services.

Despite James and other activists’ protests, the government continued to exclude most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from social services under the Social Services Consolidation Act 1947. Federal control over Aboriginal affairs was not possible until parts of the Constitution were changed following the outcome of the Referendum in 1967.

Source details

Yorta Yorta man Shadrach Livingstone James was the son of Thomas Shadrach James and Ada Cooper. James wrote this letter alongside many other appeals while living with his family in Maroopna, Victoria.

This letter was sent to the prime minister. It was copied and held by the Department of Social Services. It was later transferred to the National Archives of Australia, which holds it as part of the national archival collection.

Access Shadrach James’s letter through the National Archives of Australia online catalogue. Go to pages 9 and 10. 


Permission to include this letter was granted by Shadrach Livingstone James’s great grandson Jamil Tye after speaking with his Elders.


National Archives of Australia: Department of Social Services; A884, Correspondence files, 1951–74; A55 Part 1, Aborigines – Eligibility for Social Service Benefits, 1939–45.