I’m black and I’m proud to be black

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It was a fraught game on Saturday 17 April 1993 when St Kilda faced Collingwood at Victoria Park in Melbourne, the home ground for Collingwood, the Australian Football League team affectionately known as the Magpies. The Saints had beaten the Magpies in the finals the previous year, so there was indeed bad blood – but it had been seventeen years since they last beat Collingwood at Victoria Park.  

Two of St Kilda’s Indigenous players, Gilbert McAdam and Nicky Winmar, received racial abuse not only from the crowd but also from the Collingwood cheer squad, which yelled for him to “go and sniff some petrol” and “go walkabout where you came from”.

As siren sounded at the conclusion of the game, which St Kilda won by 22 points, Winmar who was near the cheer squad raised his hands in victory, lifted up his jersey, pointed to his skin and said, “I’m black and I’m proud to be black.”

Although the television crews had missed the moment, two young photographers – Wayne Ludbey and John Feder – captured it from two different angles. Ludbey remembers:

“It was something that wasn’t normal, it was something that you weren’t used to seeing and photographing on the football field.  I knew immediately it needed to be recorded in the following day’s Sunday Age.”

Both Ludbey and Feder had to fight with their editors to get the photos the prominence they deserved, but the pictures appeared in the next day’s Sunday Age and Sunday Herald Sun respectively, and by the following week, it was the talk of the country. The Collingwood president made the matters worse by insisting on TV that the Magpies were not a racist club, and they did not have an issue with Indigenous Australians, “As long as they conduct themselves like white people, well, off the field, everyone will admire and respect … As long as they conduct themselves like human beings, they will be all right. That’s the key.”

It was a telling moment.  Australia was then on the cusp of a sea change. 1991 saw “Treaty,” a protest song by Yothu Yindi became the first song by an Aboriginal band to top the charts in Australia. The following year, the High Court would recognize the pre-colonial land interests of First Nations people within the Common Law framework in the Mabo decision, and the Prime Minister would give a speech admitting the negative impact of white settlement in Australia on its Indigenous peoples, culture and society.  

But Victoria Park incident highlighted the long road that lay ahead for a country where segregation against the indigenous peoples existed well into the sixties, and the indigenous people were out of school by age fourteen into the seventies. Such legacies endured — the first indigenous doctor only graduated in 1983, and the first indigenous judge wasn’t appointed until 1996 – three years after Winmar’s defiant stand. Even today, unemployment rates hover in high forties for the indigenous population of Australia.  

The gesture – and the photograph – would inspire a song, not to mention numerous murals and reproductions, and eventually a statue outside Perth Stadium.  As for the AFL, it established a code of conduct for players and teams by 1995, emphasizing the role of umpires in reporting racial abuse incidents and fining clubs up to $50,000, but tensions did linger on. As recently as 2020, Collingwood fans were being reprimanded for abusing an opposition player simply because he was indigenous, and a veteran AFL commentator had even claimed that Winmar’s story of racial abuse was simply not true: “Maybe Nicky’s dining out on it now about lifting his jumper … my recollection was that St Kilda won and Nicky lifted his jumper saying: ‘That was a gutsy effort. We have got heart’. Now it’s been misconstrued.”

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