Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders be aware there are references to deceased persons in this section.

Joe McGinness (1914 - 2003) was an extraordinary man who led a life of remarkable achievement and was involved in the 20th century's defining battles for indigenous rights.

He lived through a period of Australian politics in which state governments began their policy of assimilating "half caste" Aboriginal children into white families and institutions, and herding tribal people into reserves. So-called protection laws gave state governments near autonomous control over the movements of Aboriginal people.

McGinness's activism began in the 1930s in Darwin, where he protested against mass unemployment and appeared before parliamentary delegations examining the question of indigenous rights. Along with members of his family, he staged a protest tent outside the Kahlin Compound, an action unheard of at the time. It was after joining the Waterside Workers' Federation while working on the wharves on Thursday Island that McGinness' activism began in earnest.

In 1958 there was an emerging national movement in support of indigenous rights and the formation of a national indigenous advocacy body, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, commonly known as FCAATSI. This organisation was formed after a coalition of rights groups met in Adelaide in 1958. McGuinness soon became FCAATSI's first indigenous president, a position he held for 17 years between 1961 to 1973 and 1975 to 1979.

Across the country, FCAATSI pursued legislative reform, wage equity cases, and the early push for land rights. McGinness is well remembered for his role as joint national campaign director during the lead-up to the 1967 referendum. It was a campaign of driving from town hall meeting to town hall meeting and grassroots action across the nation. The referendum was FCAATSI's strongest and most successful campaign. It gave constitutional capacity to the federal government to legislate in favour of Aboriginal people, and allowed indigenous Australians to be counted in the census. Supported by more than 90% of voters, it remains the strongest 'yes' vote of any Australian referendum.

Uncle Joe, as he was popularly known, went on to be a key figure in the early days of the development of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and had great influence over members of federal parliament from both sides of politics. Back in North Queensland, Uncle Joe became the regional manager of Aboriginal Hostels in Cairns, and was instrumental in the establishment of many of the major Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations in north and far north Queensland.

Source: The Koorie History Website - Martyrs in The Struggle for Justice.

Recollections from Sam Bienstock who was Joe McGinness's driver around Queensland and the top end in 1970. (18KB)

A selection of Sam's photo taken on the road with "Uncle" Joe. (1.45MB)