Heroes in The Struggle for Justice

Important People in the Political Struggle for Aboriginal Rights

Sol Bellear
1950 - 2017

SOL BELLEAR 1950 - 2017

Sol Bellear, one of the most influential national Aboriginal leaders of his generation

When a wide-eyed Sol Bellear visited Harlem, New York City, for the first time he broke into a sprint to escape a rain shower. "Stop running," one of his hosts from the Black Panther Party yelled at him. "Do you want to get yourself shot?"

Bellear would often tell that story to friends and colleagues, explaining that if you ran the police would think you had done something wrong and were trying to escape. It was just one of many lessons from his travels that Bellear, who died peacefully at his home on Wednesday, November 29, would learn on his path to becoming one of Australia's most significant and respected Aboriginal leaders.

Bellear's visit to Harlem took place in 1970, when he went to the United States as part of an Aboriginal delegation to the UN General Assembly and then stayed on for a further six months working with the Black Panthers. This experience and subsequent ones would give him a valuable international perspective.

He looked at the Sami Parliament in Europe, visited reservations in the US and Canada, and spent time in Maori communities. "What I found in my travels shames our nation and makes a mockery of our fear of a 'nation within a nation'. Dozens of treaties have been signed in the US and Canada which afford First Nations communities varying degrees of genuine self-determination, from controlling their own schooling to giving them a real capacity to generate an economic base," he said.

A Bundjalung man, Sol was born at Murwillumbah District Hospital in Northern New South Wales, one of nine children. Like many young Aboriginal people at the time, he moved to Sydney shortly after the 1967 referendum. He played rugby league for the South Sydney Rabbitohs and Redfern All Blacks and became politicised by the racism he experienced in the city, telling the ABC: "That hard-on racism I got when I moved to Sydney I could not believe," he said. "It was shocking, it was really, really horrible."

Bellear encouraged non-Aboriginal people who had begun protesting against apartheid and other racial inequalities overseas to also turn their attention to Australia. "We said 'hang on, these things are happening here,'" he said. "That's when the focus started on a political movement here for Aboriginal people."

He was at the forefront of that movement as Aboriginal people took control of the services that governed their lives. His achievements were considerable and straddled the worlds of health, land rights, politics, the law and sport. He was the one of the founding members of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) and the Aboriginal Housing Company, was inaugural chair of the Aboriginal Legal Service and Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council and was the long time chair of the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service. Later he would serve as a director and patron of the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence.

Top of Form Bellear was also among the most influential national Aboriginal leaders of his generation. In the 1990s he was the deputy chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), at that time the organisation's most senior elected position. In 1999, he was awarded an Order of Australia for his services to the Aboriginal community. Earlier this year he was appointed to the board of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and was a delegate to the recent Uluru Constitutional Convention.

His friendships and political influence crossed party lines. He shared a flat with the future Labor Minister, Robert Tickner, and was friends with the Liberal NSW Opposition Leader, Peter Collins. In announcing his state funeral, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said that: "Sol was one of Australia's greatest Aboriginal leaders. He dedicated his whole life and energy to Aboriginal land rights and welfare, fighting for equality and improving the lives of future generations, and for that, we are very grateful to him."

On learning of his death, Labor Senator Patrick Dodson described him as: "A true activist and justice warrior for First Nations People ... Sol Bellear AM will be remembered for his uncompromising drive for justice and all he achieved for First Nations People in Australia and Internationally."

A committed multiculturalist, Bellear nurtured strong relationships within both the Muslim and Jewish communities reasoning that the suffering they experienced would enable them to empathise with Aboriginal people. No discussion of Bellear's life would be complete without mention of his infectious joy for rugby league, a love that continued after his playing days. He was a mainstay of the NSW Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout, served as a director of the South Sydney Rabbitohs and manager of the Indigenous All Stars Representative team, where he mentored many of the game's biggest stars.

However, the many demands of Bellear's public life were never permitted to compromise time with family where he was a loving father, Poppy and uncle. His sister LaVerne recalls that Sol never missed family get togethers and was always among the first to RSVP. In the last week of his life, he was preparing to mark the 25th Anniversary of former Prime Minister Paul Keating's Redfern Speech. Sol, who stood next to the then Prime Minister on stage that day, had been asked to participate in a number of events to commemorate the speech.

He was also planning to renew his call for the Sydney City Council to erect a plaque on the site of the speech to help people remember and reflect on its significance. He had asked the council to do this on previous anniversaries without success. Undeterred, he planned to write to the Lord Mayor and councillors again on the 25th Anniversary.

Sol Bellear was 66. He is survived by Naomi Mayers and their children Tamara and Joseph.

Gary Highland
17 December 2017