Born in 1936, Mabo started life like so many other indigenous people, deprived of a meaningful education, denied access to whites-only buses, cinemas, even toilets. This was apartheid in Australia. He married Bonita, his teenage sweetheart and with whom he had 10 children. Mabo ended up on the mainland working a number of jobs, including laboring on the railways.
It was during a stint as gardener at the James Cook University at Townsville in Queensland that his eyes were opened to the greatest injustice his people had ever been subjected to. In 1974, he became involved in a discussion with two academics. He told them of his dream of ending his days on Murray Island, on the ancestral land that had been handed down through his family for 15 generations. The two scholarly figures told Mabo that he didn’t own the land and that it was Crown land. Mabo expressed disbelief and shock. Mabo gained an education, became an activist for black rights and worked with his community to make sure Aboriginal children had their own schools. He also cooperated with members of the Communist Party, the only white political party to support Aboriginal campaigns at the time.
Mabo rejected the more militant direct action tactics of the land rights movement, seeing the most important goal as being to destroy the legal justification for what he regarded as land theft. He petitioned, campaigned, cajoled and questioned Terra Nullius for 18 years. In June 1992, a panel of judges at the High Court ruled that Aboriginal people were the rightful custodians of the land.