How Aboriginal activism brought about change

By Jessica Campion 14 July 2011
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A new exhibition showcases artwork of a time when Aboriginal activists drew attention to civil rights.

IT WAS BUT HALF a century ago, a time still sharp in the minds of a baby boomer generation, that landmark battles were waged and won by Aboriginal people, for Aboriginal people. In the 1960s, Aboriginal people achieved citizenship, financial assistance, and equal pay, and won back rights to their land and rights to the preservation of their cultural heritage.
“The 60s was the most important era for Aboriginal people,” says Noeline Briggs-Smith, Aboriginal historian and educator. “It brought to the attention of the government at that time that Aboriginal issues needed – badly – to be looked at and the changes that came impacted greatly on the lives of Aboriginal people.”

For many activists in NSW, one event and one year is set down in history – the Freedom Rides in 1965.

Led by Charlie Perkins, Australia’s first indigenous university graduate, the Freedom Riders travelled through the NSW country towns of Walgett, Gulargambone, Kempsey, Bowraville and Moree, protesting Aboriginal exclusion from clubs, swimming pools, cafes and picture theatres. The students uncovered violent racism, exposed huge welfare disparity, and stood in the face of the strong, often violent, opposition they encountered in many of the towns.

Indigenous Australia challenging the establishment

Noeline Briggs-Smith, born in 1940, grew up in the camps and missions of Moree in north-western NSW. It was this outback town –  the only municipality with a written Act banning Aboriginal people from public venues – that played host to some of the most intense conflict the Freedom Riders faced.

“Things improved when Charlie came to town,” Noeline says. “I believe, as an Aboriginal historian, that what Charlie did was let the rest of the nation know about racism and segregation, and that led towards the overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote in 1967. And it was the young people [who] helped Charlie. The older ones didn’t want to shake things up – they said ‘We have to work in this town after all this’ – but the young ones would say ‘Why can’t we get served? Why can’t we go to the bar? Why do we have to have a segregated hospital ward?'”

Jim Spigelman, a recently retired NSW Chief Justice, was a student activist in the 60s and one of the students involved in the Freedom Rides. In 1965, aged 19, Jim was the activist group’s secretary, and he says the demonstration chalked up crucial points in the battle for Aboriginal rights. 

“This tour was the first time that the plight of Aborigines was front-page news for a sustained period. I am sure it did much to make all Australians aware of the issues and expanded the support for action, primarily because of the violence we encountered. I, myself, was king hit and knocked to the ground when we were demonstrating against the absolute ban on any Aborigine swimming in the municipal pool in Moree,” Jim says.

“Of equal significance was the fact the Charlie was clearly the leader. This was the first time, perhaps outside sport, that an indigenous Australian was seen to be in a political and social leadership role.”

Along with pushing the issue of racism into the mainstream, demonstrations in the 60s like the Freedom Rides also brought the idea of activism to the attention of disparate and disillusioned Aboriginal people. Indigenous artist, illustrator and author Elaine Russell, 70, was born in Tingha, near Moree, and grew up on missions at Lake Cargelligo in central NSW, and La Perouse in Sydney. Elaine says the Freedom Rides were crucial in the lives of all Aboriginal people. 

“We weren’t all front runners like Charlie, but we needed people like that. These people weren’t afraid to go out and get what they believed in and that’s what we needed,” she says.

“Growing up, there were no bolts and chains on the mission or in town but there was an invisible gate that you couldn’t get through and I would always think ‘What did we do wrong to deserve this treatment?’ The fighters like Charlie Perkins, they’re the ones [who] opened the doors for us. They’ve done plenty for how Aboriginal people are treated today. They were all pioneers.”

Elaine Russell, whose works are held in the Art Gallery of NSW and the National Gallery of Australia, is among several Aboriginal artists displaying works in a current exhibition titled Freedom Riders: Art and activism 1960s to now at the University of Sydney. The exhibition commemorates 50 years of progress and activism in Aboriginal art and features a portrait of Charles Perkins by Aboriginal artist Robert Campbell Jnr and a documentary film retracing the Freedom Ride.

TIMELINE: Aboriginal activism

A group of Indigenous and non-indigenous Aboriginal rights activists launch a petition for a constitutional referendum dissolving all discriminatory clauses from the Australian constitution and making Aboriginal affairs a federal responsibility.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists form The Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA). The FCAA was the first united national body for Aboriginal activists. The public pressure group took the fight for Aboriginal rights and constitutional reform into the public eye and into federal parliament.

The FCAA propose a legislative referendum to grant equal citizenship, wages, and employment to Aboriginal people. The rally for support was conducted in every state and more than 100,000 signatures of support were collected. Although, at this time, the constitution was not changed, the Commonwealth Electoral Act was passed and Aboriginal people were given federal voting rights.

In protest to proposed mining leases in Arnhem Land, Aboriginal elders at Yirrkala present the federal government with a bark painting, the title deed to their country, to argue the Yolngu people’s native title over the land. The Yirrkala bark petition combined bark painting with typed text and was the first traditional document to be accepted as a legitimate document for recognition in Commonwealth Parliament. In a court of law based on terra nullius, the petition failed to establish Yonglu ownership but compensation and sacred site protection was achieved as well as an awareness of a new concept of land entitlement – Aboriginal Native Title.

Indigenous student Charlie Perkins leads a group of fellow Sydney University student activists in the NSW Freedom Rides and exposes the epidemic of discrimination against, and mistreatment of, indigenous Australians. The demonstrations bombarded the airwaves and television broadcasts demanding action for Aboriginal equality.

200 Aboriginal cattle workers on Wave Hill station in the Northern Territory walk off the job, protesting their unequal work and pay conditions in comparison to caucasian employees. The ‘Wave Hill Walk-Off’ is highly publicised, influencing similar Aboriginal employee strikes nation-wide, and beginning a wider public fight for Aboriginal right to equal pay and rights to land.  

Aboriginal rights activists succeed in their decade-long battle for Aboriginal citizenship. Just over 90 per cent of constituents voted YES to change the Australian constitution to recognise Aboriginal people as citizens, the largest ever affirmative vote for Australian constitutional change. The referendum meant Aboriginal people were to be counted in the national census, subject to the same Commonwealth laws as European Australians, and recognised as citizens of Australia.