Australia: Freedom fighter Chicka Dixon departs, his activist spirit lives on

Charles "Chicka" Dixon (top left with mouth covered) at the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra. Photo from

By Peter Boyle, Sydney

March 31, 2010 -- Indigenous and trade union activist Chicka "The Fox" Dixon (1928-2010) was farewelled by more than a thousand people in a state funeral in Sydney Town Hall today. Chicka was from the Yuin people whose traditional lands stretch along the south coast of New South Wales, from the Shoalhaven down to the Victorian border.

In the last of many tributes, fellow Black Power activist and 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy veteran Gary Foley noted the sweet irony of this official send off. "ASIO investigated the Fox for alleged 'communist' connections and alleged 'terrorist' connections and now the government is giving him a state funeral. I reckon Brother Fox is having the last laugh today."

With an eye to the many politicians ("I think all politicians are bastards", said Gary) in the hall, including NSW Labor Party Premier Kristina Keneally and federal Labor government Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin, Foley earned a thundering acclamation when he shouted out: "End the NT intervention! Free Lex Wotton!"

There were many moving tributes from family members, other Indigenous activists like Michael Anderson and Bob Morgan, Maritime Union of Australia leader Paddy Crumlin, but also an unconvincing tribute from Premier Keneally.

In her tribute, Keneally suggested that all rights that had once been fought for had now been won and so all that was left for us was to acknowledge the contributions of activists like Chicka. But Gary Foley revealed that in a conversation he had with Chicka before his death, they had agreed that things had actually got worse for Aboriginal people and so there was still much to fight for.

"Native title is not land rights", said Gary. "Reconciliation is not justice."

Gary Foley was speaking the simple truth. How dare Keneally pretend that the fight for Indigenous people's rights is over when Indigenous youth in Australia today are 28 times more likely to be jailed and the life expectancy gap between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous population is as high as 20 years in some parts of Australia.

Just a few days before, the Christian Science Monitor had reminded the world of this shameful state of affairs:

Aboriginal adults are six times more likely to be arrested than other Australians and 13 times more likely to be jailed. In the Northern Territory, they make up 80 percent of the prison population although only one-third of the territory’s residents are indigenous.

The CSM article quoted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda:

One of the biggest problems we have in this country is denial of racism. I keep saying to people: Come and live in my world for a while and you might change your opinion.

Gary Foley's fighting call was a fitting end to Chicka's state funeral. It reminded everyone of the freedom fighter whose life was being celebrated. This activist spirit is what Chicka Dixon will always represent to all those still struggling for Indigenous and working people's rights.

[Peter Boyle in national convenor of the Socialist Alliance of Australia. Visit Gary Foley's web page at for a wealth of resources on the struggle of Australia's Indigenous people. The Socialist Alliance has produced a Charter of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Rights.]

Vale 'Chicka' Dixon: wharfie and Aboriginal activist

March 27, 2010 -- Waterside worker and long-time Aboriginal activist Charles "Chicka" Dixon died in Sydney on March 20, aged 81 — struck down by asbestosis he contracted while working on the wharves.

Chicka Dixon — Aboriginal of the Year, Tent Embassy activist, builders’ labourer, wharfie, university lecturer, recovered alcoholic and former chair of the Aboriginal Arts Board, a man who represented his people around the world, studied with the Canadian Native Americans, did a bit of jail, was mates with prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke and addressed 10,000 Chinese people in the Great Hall of the People — has died.

Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) national secretary Paddy Crumlin paid tribute to Chicka, a political and labour warrior. “The MUA adds their sympathies and condolences to the many voices in our national and the international labour movement on Chicka's passing”, he said. “A man of character, substance and unwavering courage, he reflected the finer traits Australians aspire to and seek after for a society that is decent, inclusive and fair to all.

“Chicka was a worker, leader and activist who was determined to turn around racism and elitism and gain proper recognition for the extraordinary culture and character of his people and the great injustice done to them.

“His asbestosis-related death brings into even clearer focus this great injustice to working men and women in this country and the long campaign led by the MUA in many ways to find remedy and restitution.

“Our membership officials and staff in particular farewell one of our own. Vale comrade.”

In an interview with the union's journal in 2001, “White plague strikes Black elder”, Chicka recalled his exposure to asbestos on the Sydney wharves in the 1960s. “It would fly all over the place”, he said. “Heaps of it. My gang, we'd sit on the bags and eat our lunch. Bags and bags of asbestos. No one knew. We usen't to take any notice. Forty years down the road, in 1997, I collapsed.

“When they examined me, they said ‘you've got dusty lungs’. All those years, I'd never been sick in my life. I've been 12 times in hospital in the last two years. Seven days to pump my lungs out.”

Dixon left the Wallaga mission on the NSW south coast for the city in 1945. By 1946, Chicka told the Maritime Workers’ Journal, ``I was sneaking off to meetings of the Aboriginal Progressive Association at the Ironworkers’ Hall [the FIA at the time was controlled by the Communist Party of Australia]. `Oh Chicka, don’t go down there, they’ll call you Red’, my mother said. `Well, I said, they’ve been calling me black for years'.’‘ After a stint as builders’ labourer, he got a job as a wharfie and was a militant with the CPA-led Waterside Workers Federation.

``That’s where I learned the politics. The Communist Party Moscow liners were masters of organising. And I learned a lot about other people’s struggles... I was in a bit of a shell before that. I thought we were the only people in the world discriminated against. Then I started to hear about Greek political prisoners (we walked off on that issue), the Vietnam War (repeatedly walked off on that) and South Africa (walked off on that, too)... That was my political education ... They taught me how to organise. We’d be talking politics all the time. It was second nature’‘.

Harry Black, from MUA Veterans, worked alongside Chicka at Darling Harbour. “Chicka was very active as an Aboriginal activist and as a unionist”, he said. “He played a very significant role on wharves continually putting forward the Aboriginal cause and working closely with the union to bring about support. Under his influence, quite a few Aborigines came to the waterfront and became members of the waterfront. Chicka was dedicated to the struggle for betterment of his people."

Through Chicka's and other Indigensous activists' direct involvement with the left and labour movement, the Indigenous people’s rights movement could call on the power of working-class action in many situations. An example was provided by Chicka Dixon:

I was in bed and three young Aborigines knocked on the door about nine o’clock at night. They told me that a very dignified hotel down in George Street [in Sydney] wouldn’t serve Aborigines. I decided to go down and find out. I took the blackest fella with me, walked in, and asked for a schooner of beer for my friend and schooner of lemonade for myself. The bartender said: `I’m sorry... We won’t serve Aborigines.’ `Well that’s quite all right, [Chicka replied], tomorrow evening I’ll have 300 waterside workers up outside your joint here. Nobody is going to get in because we are going to blacklist this hotel. Then I’ll go to the Trades and Labour Council and the Liquor Trades Union to pull the barmaids out.’ Well, he did complete [about] face. It’s a remarkable thing, blacks are welcome down there now!’‘ -- in Tatz, Colin (ed.) 1975, Black Viewpoints: The Aboriginal Experience, Sydney: Australian and New Zealand Book Company, pp. 35-6. 

Chicka was one of the central campaigners for the 1967 referendum, an active participant of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in the 1970s and a founder of the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). Chicka Dixon provided a key link between the earlier generations of working-class Indigenous activists and the post-1967 young ``Black Power" Indigenous activists.

These young firebrands’ first stop in Sydney was the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, an organisation with a social and cultural focus, which ``grew out of’‘ the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship (Barani Indigenous History of Sydney City 2002, ``Aboriginal Organisations in Sydney’‘). According to Chicka Dixon, the Foundation, as it was known, came into being 1964 and ``grew out of a discussion between myself, a fellow called Charles Perkins and Professor Bill Geddes of the Anthropology Department, Sydney University. We felt that black people in Sydney needed a centre where they could get advice about jobs, meals, places where they could have social activities, legal advice if necessary... Our general policy was to help Aborigines to help themselves... We would hold a Saturday dance night and a Sunday night concert’‘ (in Tatz 1975, pp. 36-7). At the Foundation, the new activists mixed with the older generation of militant leaders, such as Chicka Dixon and Ken Brindle. They ``came to sense themselves as the inheritors of a long tradition of political struggle as they met and conversed with aging legends of the indigenous struggle such as Bill Onus, Jack Patten, Bert Groves’‘ (Foley 2001). 

On January 25, 1972, Liberal PM Billy McMahon announced that his government would not grant land rights. In response, young Indigenous radicals from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane planned, established and ran the most famous of all Aboriginal protests, the long-running Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Gary Foley described the origins of the protest: ``Indigenous leaders meeting in Sydney that night were outraged at what they regarded as stonewalling. By that time the core of the Redfern group comprised of Paul Coe and sister Isobel from Cowra, brilliant Qld writer and theorist John Newfong, Bob, Kaye and Sol Bellear, Tony Coorie from Lismore, Alana and Samantha Doolan from Townsville, Gary Wiliams and Gary Foley from Nambucca, Lyn Craigie and her brother Billy from Moree... One of the group’s mentors, Chicka Dixon, was keen on replicating the Native American's takeover of Alcatraz. He urged that they take over Pinchgut Island (Fort Denison) in Sydney harbour. `Not just take it over, defend it!’, he said, because when the Indians had taken over Alcatraz they had placed their peoples plight into `the eyes of the world’." In the it was decided to go to Canberra and establish the Tent Embassy.

Under the Whitlam government, Chicka was sent to Canada to study, employed alongside Charles Perkins in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, established by Whitlam in 1973. Hawke appointed him chair of the Aboriginal Arts Board in 1983. The following year he was made Aboriginal of the Year.

He is survived by his two daughters, Rhonda and Christine, and a large extended family.

[Based on information from,, Green Left Weekly and The Aboriginal Struggle and the Left.]


Vale Comrade: Chicka Dixon

31 Mar 2010

MUA guard of honour alongside Rabbitos for todays state funeral, Town Hall, Sydney where MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin paid tribute to former wharfie and Aboriginal activist Chicka Dixon struck down by asbestos


Delivered by Paddy Crumlin,

National Secretary, Maritime Union of Australia

I'd like to pay my respects and acknowledge the traditional and sovereign owners of the land in recognising country and honouring the First Nations People of Australia.

Our condolences to Chicka's family here today. Your Excellency, the Premier, you and your government have done a wonderful thing in recognising Chicka and getting this great mob together under one roof.  

Kennie, Linda -  and I'd better acknowledge Warren Snowdon because we wouldn't want anyone to think it's Warrens Truss sitting in the front row - sisters, brothers and comrades.

Charles "Chicka" Dixon was a worker, leader and activist who was determined to turn around racism and elitism in our country and elsewhere and gain proper recognition for the extraordinary culture and character of his people and the great injustices done to them.

He rose to political prominence as a member of the Waterside Workers' Federation.

He worked as a wharfie at a critical time when the union was an active and outspoken supporter of equal rights for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

Chicka through his union formed a great partnership - gaining political leverage through joint action without compromising individual choice and freedom.

The union was privileged to have in its ranks this man of courage, intellect and compassion.

Chicka said he learnt a lot from the union about organising and getting a result. He often spoke of the comrades he worked with at the time such as Tom Nelson Sydney Branch Secretary, John Coombs, former National Secretary of the MUA, Jim Donovan former Sydney Branch Secretary and President of the MUA, Harry Black, MUA Veterans Association, Ken Smith WWF Vigilance Officer and Barry Robson, former MUA Sydney Branch official now President of the Asbestos Foundation. 

Chicka was a union delegate and popular with the rank and file, particularly off the grog.

Chicka was always known to like a good time and the story goes that in his first weeks on the waterfront one of the wharfies was going around asking for donations for the party. After about 4-5 weeks of putting in Chicka asked when and where was the party going to be held to which he got the response -  "Not that sort of party, mate, the Communist Party".

Chicka represented the union at various Annual Conferences of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) during the 1960s and early 1970s and in many other WWF delegations and actions in support of the advancement of his people. He later became convenor of that council.

Chicka and the union campaigned tirelessly for a 'Yes' vote in the 1967 Referendum to give indigenous people the vote and was an active participant at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972. He was also an active member of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs.

In 1972 he was a part of a delegation of Aboriginal Australians invited to visit China to tell the Chinese about the Aboriginal struggle for justice while at the same time shaming the federal government.  

When the Whitlam Labor Government was elected the Prime Minister encouraged him to go to the USA and Canada to study alcohol rehabilitation programs especially among Amerindian and Afro-American people, and he represented his people in many international forums.

He provided leadership and guidance to a generation of Aboriginal and non Aboriginal Australians determined to find truth and proper justice as well as reconcilation.

I am one of those.

He strived and lived for our society to be decent, inclusive and fair for all.

During his seventies, he had to deal with asbestos poisoning, a legacy from his working days on the wharves. The union was in the forefront of agitating for recognition and reparation for the criminal negligence visited upon workers exposed to that toxic and fatal material.  This campaign provided a strong, wider and more pervasive platform for finding material solace for those victims and their families.  Chicka and the Dixon family would appreciate the irony.

Chicka is remembered in our union as a leader and a worker. He was a man of family, a man of character and substance, a man of unwavering courage and compassion and a man of great good humour reflecting all of the finer traits Australians and human beings generally aspire to.

He was a true Australian in every sense.  Like everyone here today we are proud to be part of his great and important life's journey and to have shared in his footprints.

To his family; please accept the deepest sympathies and condolences from the members, officers, staff and veterans of the Maritime Union of Australia. Sympathies and condolences are also conveyed by the many workers, trade unionists and indigenous activists in this country and internationally who were his borthers and sisters.

Vale Comrade Chicka Dixon now at peace


The point Chicka makes about sitting on the bags of asbestos completely unaware of the damage is a sentiment echoed by many, and it is such a shame. This is also why as asbestos solicitors we are keen to educate more people and also try and help end the use of asbestos, as surprisingly it is still used in some places.