Australia was awakening from its long self-satisfied slumber in the 1960s. While Robert Menzies’ slavish pro-Empire views still reigned in Canberra, its young educated citizens began to tap into the worldwide zeitgeist of student protest. Racism was a flashpoint. The imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King were the spark for a civil rights demonstration outside the US consulate in Sydney in 1964. Students garnered great publicity for their cause by burning a Ku Klux Klan cross and clashing with police.
But some people starting asking the disturbing question: why weren’t these students campaigning against racism at home in Australia? Overseas newspapers pointed out the hypocrisy of student riots against US issues while their country still held dear to 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 called on the students to probe their own lack of “coloured neighbours”.
They may not have been neighbours, but Aboriginal rights groups were active in pointing out Australia’s failure to adhere to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The international censure was embarrassing to Canberra but was immaterial to state governments who “managed” Aboriginal issues at home. It was this disconnect that led Aboriginal organisations to seek constitutional change.
Student interest in these issues was muted by the lack of Aboriginal people on campus. That changed when Charles Perkins and Gary William 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 Perkins was an Arrernte-Kalkadoon man and already an experienced public speaker and political leader as vice president of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines (FCAA).
The genesis of the freedom ride came with a committee for action on Aboriginal rights at the university on National Aborigines Day, July 8, 1964. A well-intentioned leaflet with the inscription “Poor bloody Abos!” still showed the students had much to learn about Indigenous affairs. A meeting heard how children were being locked up in Walgett for trivial offences and how the constitutional change campaign was going, with a protest of 500 students outside parliament house the following day.
Perkins then took on the leadership to look at further options, one of which was a freedom rider bus through NSW and Queensland. Perkins instinctively saw how good a freedom ride would be for television with its need for short grabs and dramatic visuals. Freedom rides began in Jamaica in 1957 as a tool to remove the tax on cycling but were better known from the rides in southern US in 1961. The publicity around the arrest of 300 American freedom riders trying to desegregate buses had immediate success and made the news across the world including Australia. Perkins wanted to bring this idea of non-violent direct action home to shine a light on discrimination in NSW country towns.
The Australian rides took another half a year to organise and it wasn’t until February 12, 1965 that a white touring bus arrived at the university. Twenty-nine students boarded alongside a banner of Student Action for Aborigines which led to it being known as the SAFA bus tour. Perkins was aboard and Williams would join later, and there was one other Aboriginal man, lay preacher Gerry Mason. A key rider was Darce Cassidy a student who recorded everything for the ABC while on leave until he was ordered to disembark at Moree when his leave expired.
The students decided to conduct a social survey of Indigenous people they would meet along the way. The questions would ask about attitudes as well as housing conditions, water, sewerage and electricity and it helped SAFA when they sought permission from the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board to enter the stations and reserves they controlled. These boards were tasked with assimilation of Aborigines into the wider community, though they were frustrated by white townsfolk who wanted to keep Aborigines out and public utilities like schools, cinemas and pools segregated. Aborigines who didn’t live in the reserves lived in squalid shanty-towns or ‘yumbas’ next to the town.
The bus planned to visit ten towns: Wellington, Gulargambone, Walgett, Moree, Boggabilla, Tabulam, Lismore, Bowraville, Kempsey and Taree, a trip of 2300km. Ann Curthoys was one of the riders and she wrote the best memoir of the ride called “Freedom Ride: A Freedom Rider remembers”. Curthoys was a left-wing student, influenced by her mother’s student activism, and she had already written on Indigenous issues.
After an overnight stop in Orange, the students did their first survey in the shantytown at Wellington. The hot, dusty shacks were a shock for the wealthy middle-class students. They found employment was scarce and social services non-existent. Perkins went into a pub he heard discriminated against Aborigines. Bar staff were reluctant to serve him but eventually did after a conference with the manager. The bus eventually left for Dubbo that evening with no consensus for further action in Wellington.
The first stop in the morning after Dubbo was Gulargambone where whites 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 the police ran the reserve and whenever there was trouble they would arrest the usual suspects before beating them up at the station. Again, despite the problems, the students felt Gulargambone was not the place to demonstrate.
They moved north to Walgett in Gamilaraay and Yuwaaliyaay country. Cheap Indigenous labour kept Walgett profitable but whites were alarmed at the black population moving into their town, and there was rigorous segregation. Dimly aware of the town’s history, the students arrived at 7pm and settled in at the Anglican hall. They decided their target here would be the RSL club, a hallowed institution but one which refused to admit Indigenous people in Walgett, including Aboriginal ex-servicemen.
The following morning the radio reported the planned picket of the RSL at noon. The Anglican Minister was unhappy but the students were insistent and he reluctantly agreed to let them stay another night. The students drew up a banner saying “Good Enough for Tobruk. Why not Walgett?” One bystander at the RSL cried out “Who the hell do you think you are?” while others jeered. Eventually Perkins spoke and a public debate broke out. The picket last seven hours with a crowd of 350 people. The locals were angry at these city boys with long hair and girls with short skirts telling them how to run their town. But it ended peacefully and the group eventually returned to the hall around 9pm. There they were in for a shock.
The church minister, claiming to be shocked they were a mixed sex group with alcohol, decided to fire them out. His real reason was in a letter he wrote a month later: “our dark friends are just not like Europeans” he wrote. At 10pm the students reluctantly boarded the bus and were followed out of town by 200 local black and white people. Some 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 mob of drunks outside the police station at midnight. With the situation turning ugly, a remarkable black woman named Pat Walford emerged from the crowd and 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 crowd disintegrated. Shaken and excited, the students moved on to Moree.
When people look back on the Freedom Ride today it is Moree they remember. Moree was in the heart of Gamilaraay country and its rich soil made it prosperous for sheep, cattle and wheat. Tourism was increasingly important and a council decree made the artesian thermal baths, adjacent 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 even the hospital, and the town was known as Australia’s Little Rock, for the Arkansas symbol of small-town racism in the US.
The students arrived in Moree after a long overnighter and did a survey. They met businessman and ex-councillor Bob Brown, who opposed segregation and paid a political price losing office, but found most locals reluctant to talk. The Sydney media arrived to cover the confrontation when the students would picket the pool. The picket didn’t attract much interest and the students were frustrated when they tried to take six Aboriginal kids inside. After a crowd gathered, the mayor and police agreed they should be let in.
There was 300 people at the public meeting that followed. The atmosphere was hostile with some shouting ‘Aborigines are dirty and lazy people’ and the students shouting back locals were ignorant and prejudiced. At the end the meeting surprisingly voted in favour of desegregating the pool though most people abstained. The students left Moree but promised to return if there was any 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 pressed on. They conducted a survey in Boggabilla where they found police harassment and the need for better housing and sanitation. They went on to Warwick in Queensland to avoid a bureaucratic £250 road tax for an intra-state journey.
They were heading to Tabulam near Lismore when they heard news from Moree. The pool manager decided the ban would not be lifted on Aboriginal people for hygiene reasons. The bus returned to Moree despite the Mayor warning they would only 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 gathered around the students. The stand-off went on for hours. Under orders from the Labor state government, police refused to remove the students. The abuse was turning physical with whites throwing rotten eggs and tomatoes. Police asked for the pool to be closed 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 with international coverage. 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 more week to go. They stirred more hornets’ nests in Lismore, Bowraville, Kempsey and Taree but weariness was setting in among the students. They continued the surveys, there were pickets at segregated venues, there was rural hostility, there was urban interest in the media but nothing matched the Moree touchstone. The bus driver quit at Grafton after the Moree dangers but another was found.
Lismore was surprisingly positive. Perkins was now a celebrity and the Riders were a media event. Locals were at pains to show Lismore was not racist. Bowraville, however, was a different matter. The area was riddled with sullen discrimination and they found it a “nasty, brutal place”. The survey results were shocking and the students decided to challenge the segregation at the cinema. But when the bus arrived, the cinema owner hastily put up a sign saying “No Pictures Tonight”.
The media was again mixed with praise in Sydney and hostility locally but the students felt they had failed as the segregation continued after they left. It was much 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 the town. The Freedom Ride was ending in disappointment.
The last day of the Ride took the students to the Aboriginal settlement at Purfleet near Taree. There they spoke with people at the reserve for a half hour and pushed on to Sydney. They expected a big media reception on their return but there was nothing. However Perkins made the front page of the SMH the following day. “This small group of students has created a new dawn of hope for my people,” he said. He was right, the reverberations of the Freedom Ride carried on through the years.
Last week relatives and survivors followed in their footsteps on the 50th anniversary of the Ride. It was appropriate Charles’s daughter Rachel Perkins was part of this year’s tour. Unlike in 1965, the Mayor of the flashpoint town of Moree is welcoming the new visit. The Riders had tapped into deep and unspoken racism that affected not just the small towns but all of Australia. In no small way it paved the way for the success of the referendum two years later that allowed the Commonwealth to override State inaction.
Towns like Moree and Walgett didn’t change overnight but they could no longer openly flaunt their racist attitudes. The Freedom Ride was a stinging challenge to Australia and bigger than those who participated in it. As Curthoys said, it stimulated a new kind of Aboriginal politics with far-reaching consequences. The Freedom Ride, she concluded, held out the promise nothing could be quite the same again.