A long road to freedom: How the Freedom Ride for Aborigines changed Australia forever

safaAustralia was awakening from its long self-satisfied slumber in the 1960s. While Robert Menzies’ imperial views still reigned in Canberra, young educated Australians tapped into the zeitgeist of worldwide student protest. The imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King sparked civil rights demonstrations outside the US consulate in Sydney in 1964. Sydney university tudents made headlines and burned a Ku Klux Klan cross in clashes with police. But some asked the disturbing question: why weren’t they campaigning against racism in Australia?

Overseas newspapers pointed out the hypocrisy of student riots against US issues while their country held the White Australia Policy and denied Aboriginal rights. The Ceylon Observer noted “we coloured folk” could settle in the US but not in Australia. The Observer asked the students to probe their own lack of “coloured neighbours”.

Aboriginal groups also noted Australia’s failure to adhere to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. International censure was embarrassing to Canberra but immaterial to state governments who “managed” Aboriginal affairs. This disconnect led Aboriginal organisations to seek constitutional change.

Student interest was muted by the lack of Aboriginal people on campus. That changed when Charles Perkins and Gary Williams won scholarships to the University of Sydney in 1963. Williams was part Bundjalung, part Gumbaynggirr from northern NSW with a family history of activism while the Arrernte-Kalkadoon man Perkins was an experienced public speaker as vice president of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines.

The freedom ride idea came out of a committee for action on Aboriginal rights at the university on National Aborigines Day, July 8, 1964. The meeting was advertised on a leaflet inscribed “Poor bloody Abos!”. The meeting heard children were locked up in Walgett for trivial offences and a constitutional change campaign had started. There was a protest of 500 students outside parliament house the following day.

Perkins became committee leader and looked at options to maximise publicity, one being a freedom rider bus through country towns. Perkins knew it would be good for television news with its need for short grabs and dramatic visuals. Freedom rides began in Jamaica in 1957 to protest a cycling tax but were better known from the southern US rides in 1961. The arrest of 300 American freedom riders trying to desegregate buses made news across the world including Australia.

Perkins wanted to bring non-violent direct action home to shine a light on discrimination in NSW. The ride took six months to organise and on February 12, 1965 a white touring bus arrived at the university. Twenty-nine students boarded with a banner of Student Action for Aborigines giving it the name “SAFA bus tour”.

Perkins was aboard and Williams joined later. There was one other Aboriginal man, lay preacher Gerry Mason. Also there was student Darce Cassidy who recorded for the ABC while on holidays until ordered to disembark at Moree when his leave expired.

The students conducted a “social survey” of Indigenous people along the way. The questionnaire asked about attitudes, housing conditions, water, sewerage and electricity. It helped SAFA win permission from the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board to enter their stations and reserves. These boards were tasked with Aboriginal assimilation into the wider community, though white townsfolk wanted to keep Aborigines out and public utilities like schools, cinemas and pools segregated.

Ann Curthoys’ memoir “Freedom Ride: A Freedom Rider remembers” is a first hand account of the journey. Curthoys was a young left-wing student, influenced by her mother’s student activism, and had already written on Indigenous issues. She boarded the bus bound for ten NSW towns: Wellington, Gulargambone, Walgett, Moree, Boggabilla, Tabulam, Lismore, Bowraville, Kempsey and Taree, a 2300km trip.

The students did their first survey in the shantytown at Wellington. The dusty shacks were a shock for middle-class students. Employment was scarce and social services non-existent. Perkins went into a pub that discriminated against Aborigines. Bar staff reluctantly served him after consulting the manager. The bus left for Dubbo that evening with no consensus for further action in Wellington.

The first stop the morning after was Gulargambone where white and Aboriginal homes were separated by the Castlereagh River. Curthoys said the Gulargambone reserve was a “sobering experience” with poor housing too close to sewerage outlets and the rubbish dump. Diarrhoea, eye sores and skin sores were common. Aboriginal people said police ran the reserve and whenever there was trouble they would arrest the usual suspects before beating them up at the station. Yet the students felt Gulargambone was not the place to demonstrate. They moved north to Walgett in Gamilaraay/Yuwaaliyaay country. Cheap Indigenous labour kept Walgett profitable but whites were alarmed at the black population moving into town, and segregation was rigorous.

Dimly aware of the town’s history, the students settled in at the Anglican hall. They decided to target the RSL club, which refused to admit Indigenous people, including ex-servicemen. The following morning radio reported the planned RSL picket. The Anglican Minister was unhappy and reluctantly agreed to let them stay another night.

The students held a banner at the club saying “Good Enough for Tobruk. Why not Walgett?” One bystander cried out “Who the hell do you think you are?” while others jeered. Perkins spoke and a public debate began. The picket lasted seven hours in front of 350 people. The locals were angry at long-haired city boys and short-skirted girls telling them how to run their town. But it ended peacefully and the group returned to the hall around 9pm.

The church minister expelled them, claiming to be shocked they were a mixed sex group with alcohol. He revealed his real reason in a later letter: “our dark friends are just not like Europeans,” he wrote. At 10pm the students reluctantly boarded the bus followed by 200 locals. About 10km out of town a grazier’s son named Joey Marshall tried to run the bus off the road.

They went back to Walgett to report the incident and confronted a drunken mob at midnight outside the police station. With the situation turning ugly, a remarkable black woman Pat Walford harangued the white men. “There’s a lot of white fellas that go looking for gins here at night,” she said. “It hurts you white people in Walgett to see the whites from Sydney up here and do that to you, doesn’t it?” Walford’s threat to name the “gin jockeys” worked. The white women turned on their men and the crowd disappeared.

Shaken and excited, the students drove through the night to Moree, the most well-remembered leg of the journey. Moree was in Gamilaraay country with rich soil making it prosperous for sheep, cattle and wheat. Tourism was important too and a council decree made the artesian thermal baths, swimming pool, and memorial hall off-limits to “full blooded or half-caste aboriginal natives”, a decision council defended as “vital to the town’s prosperity”. The segregation spread to cafes, cinema, hotels and the hospital, and the town was known as Australia’s Little Rock.

The students met Moree businessman and ex-councillor Bob Brown, who lost office when he opposed segregation, but other locals were reluctant to talk. The Sydney media arrived to cover the confrontation when the students picketed the pool. The students were not allowed to take Aboriginal kids inside. After a crowd gathered, the mayor and police agreed to let them in. There was 300 people at the public meeting that followed. The atmosphere was hostile with some shouting Aborigines were “dirty and lazy people”. The students called locals ignorant and prejudiced.

The meeting surprisingly voted to desegregate the pool though most abstained. The happy students left Moree but promised to return if there was trouble. The Sydney papers reported the students had cracked the colour bar in Moree but the local press said racial discrimination was exaggerated. The students conducted a survey in Boggabilla where they found police harassment and the need for better housing and sanitation.

They went on to Warwick, Queensland to avoid a bureaucratic £250 road tax for an intra-state journey. They were heading back to Tabulam near Lismore when they heard news from Moree. The pool manager had decided Aboriginal people would not be admitted for hygiene reasons. The students returned to Moree despite the Mayor warning they would cause harm. They gathered kids from the mission and went to the pool. Perkins sought tickets but was refused. The Mayor arrived as a hostile crowd gathered. Under orders from the Labor state government, police refused to remove the students. The abuse turned physical with locals throwing rotten eggs and tomatoes. Police asked for the pool to close before the Mayor finally offered to rescind the colour bar. The delighted students agreed to leave but needed a police escort to the bus and they escaped to Inverell.

The media response was huge. Moree’s North West Champion called the students “misguided juveniles” and “troublemakers” but the Sydney press hailed Perkins as the articulate leader of the Freedom Riders. The Canberra Times said the students had made everyone think and talk about the “way we treat our Aborigines and half-castes”.

The Ride still had one week to go. They stirred more hornets’ nests in Lismore, Bowraville, Kempsey and Taree but the students were becoming weary. They did surveys, there were pickets at segregated venues, there was rural hostility, there was urban interest in the media but nothing matched Moree. Perkins became a celebrity and the Riders a media event. Lismore was surprisingly positive. Locals were at pains to show Lismore was not racist.

Bowraville, however, was riddled with sullen discrimination and they found it a “nasty, brutal place”. The survey results were shocking and the students challenged segregation at the cinema. When the bus arrived, the cinema owner hastily put up a sign saying “No Pictures Tonight”. Media was again mixed, with praise in Sydney and local hostility. The students felt they had failed as the segregation continued.

It was the same in Kempsey where they were not welcome. The Macleay Argus called them “a busload of half-baked young men and women, probably unparalleled in their own conceit and impudence”. No Aboriginal leader would meet them and the students did their surveys in the rain. The Kempsey pool also practised discrimination but when the students repeated their Moree tactic they failed and left town. The Freedom Ride was ending in disappointment. The last day of the Ride took them to the Aboriginal settlement at Purfleet near Taree. They spoke with people at the reserve and pushed on to Sydney.

They expected a big media reception on their return but there was nothing. However Perkins made the Herald front page the following day. “This small group of students has created a new dawn of hope for my people,” he said. The reverberations carried on through the years. Relatives and survivors followed in their footsteps on the 50th anniversary of the Ride. Charles’s daughter Rachel Perkins was part of this year’s tour.

Unlike in 1965, the Mayor of Moree welcomed the new visit. The original Riders tapped into deep and unspoken racism affecting not just small towns but all of Australia. It paved the way for the referendum two years later that allowed the Commonwealth to override the states. Moree and Walgett didn’t change overnight but they no longer openly flaunted racist attitudes. The Freedom Ride was a stinging challenge to Australia and bigger than its participants. As Curthoys said, it stimulated a new kind of Aboriginal politics with far-reaching consequences. The Freedom Ride held out the promise nothing could be quite the same again.


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