Freedom Ride: A journey to fight racial discrimination

By Ann Curthoys 27 May 2010
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How a bus load of youngsters rode for equal rights in Australia.

I HAVE MADE MANY have made many journeys in my life but the most important was undoubtedly the Freedom Ride of 1965. As a 19-year-old student at the University of Sydney, I was one of 33 students who travelled NSW protesting against racial discrimination and demanding equal rights for Aboriginal people. We had plenty to protest about. Despite government assimilation policies, which theoretically meant social inclusion and equal opportunity, segregation and discrimination remained prevalent in most country towns.

Several things inspired the Freedom Ride. Perhaps most important was the enrolment of the University of Sydney’s first two Aboriginal students, Charles Perkins and Gary Williams, in 1963.

Route of the Freedom Ride 1965

The route taken by the Freedom Ride 1965.

Student Action for Aborigines was formed during 1964 and set about raising money for the Freedom Ride. We decided to visit NSW towns with the worst reputation for discrimination and conduct a survey to uncover what Aboriginal people wanted, and learn about white people’s attitudes towards them. Charlie Perkins and Arts/Law student Jim Spigelman – now Chief Justice of NSW – researched the towns we would visit. Most of the 11 women and 22 men who signed up for the trip were in their late teens. Our aim was to confront and highlight, without violence, racial discrimination wherever it occurred.

WE LEFT ON 12 February 1965, stopping first at Orange and beginning our survey at Wellington. Racial discrimination was evident, but we did not have local Aboriginal support, so took no action.

In Walgett, everything changed. The town had an active Aboriginal protest committee and strong local spokesmen, such as George Rose and Harry Hall.  Our target was the Walgett RSL Club, which excluded Aboriginal ex-servicemen. We displayed protest banners and Charlie addressed a huge crowd. Heated arguments between the students and local whites followed, and later, during the middle of the night, and in a volatile situation, we left. Cars of wellwishers followed for protection but were unable to stop a local grazier’s son driving us off the road.

We returned to town to report it and witnessed a sight I’ve never forgotten: an outspoken Aboriginal woman, Pat Walford, standing there in a blue dress and challenging the area’s white men. They were hypocrites, she said, seeking sexual favours from indigenous women yet unwilling to treat Aboriginal people as equals. “It’s hurting the whites to see other whites fighting for the blacks,” Pat said.

In the next town, Moree, our attempt to desegregate the council-owned artesian bore baths and swimming pool initially seemed successful. Newspaper photographs of black and white children and us students frolicking in the pool were widely published. But after leaving town we learnt that Aboriginal children were again being excluded from the pool. We returned to Moree and went back to the pool with Aboriginal children, but this time there was a huge hostile crowd. It was a Saturday, people had been drinking, and it was getting nasty. The mayor called a crisis meeting with the student leaders and agreed, if we left town immediately, that he would move at the next council meeting to have the regulation excluding Aboriginal people from the pool rescinded.

WE TRAVELLED ON THROUGH more towns – Boggabilla, Bowraville – drawing attention to facilities that excluded Aboriginal people and other issues such as poor housing. But after 14 days we were exhausted and returned to Sydney. It had been a hot, dry, demanding trip, sleeping on bare floorboards, cooking our own basic meals, and facing hostility daily.

On the positive side, we had drawn attention to racial discrimination and prompted wide public debate about racial equality, which continued throughout the year.

The journey changed many lives; Charlie Perkins’ perhaps most of all. It catapulted him on to the national stage as a spokesman for Aboriginal rights. Two years after the Freedom Ride, in 1967, more than 90 per cent of Australians voted “yes” in a referendum that gave indigenous Australians full rights as citizens, marking a turning point in attitudes to Aboriginal rights.

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 97 (Jan – Mar 2010)

The fight for Aboriginal civil rights