Freedom Rides again. Has anything changed?


A busload of students, Aboriginal activists and musicians embarked on a commemorative trip around regional New South Wales on February 19 to mark 50 years since the first Freedom Ride. Also on the bus were 15 of the original Freedom Riders, filmmaker Rachel Perkins, and musicians Troy Cassar-Daley and Paul Kelly.

The bus will go to regional areas of NSW visited by the original Freedom Ride.

The original Freedom Ride occurred when Charles Perkins, an Arrente man from Alice Springs and a Sydney University student, was elected President of Student Action for Aborigines in 1964. Perkins, with 30 university students, set out to draw attention to the segregation of Aboriginal people in regional towns. Aboriginal people were being pushed out of common public areas such as swimming pools, RSL clubs and theatres.

The Freedom Ride created controversy in towns such as Walgett, Moree, Bowraville and Kempsey, where non-Aboriginal locals were angered by having their views on segregation challenged. The racism from the white people in these towns highlighted to the students and the broader Australian public the challenges that Aboriginal people faced when it came to segregation and discrimination in a land that belongs to them.

The Freedom Ride played a strong part in passing the 1967 referendum, which removed negative references to Aboriginal people in the constitution.

Now, University of Sydney students led by the Student Representative Council President, Kyol Blakeney, are recreating the journey by returning to the same towns. The tour is a celebration of the achievements of Aboriginal people and recognises that struggles for Aboriginal rights continue.

Anne Curthoys, an original freedom rider, said the aim of the journey was “to mark the anniversary of the original Freedom Ride by listening to the concerns of Aboriginal people in those towns, and beyond, right now”.

This year there has been renewed efforts for Aboriginal rights and land rights. Tent embassies in Canberra and Redfern are withstanding constant attacks from the government and police. The ongoing NT intervention and numerous attacks on the Racial Discrimination Act by federal politicians make the Freedom Rides just as relevant today as they were in 1965.

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You lose the love of your family and home which some people think are important. I do … You develop a set of values that you are not entirely happy with when you finally achieve some sort of success. And is it suc­cess in consideration of what you would have done in another world? I would hate anybody to have to live the life I have had to live. - Charlie Perkins
In 1965 when I was 14 years old my parents sent me on a bus out to a farm near Moree over the school holidays. The people I stayed with were friendly enough but quite conservative. The farmer, Mr Makim, taught me how to chop wood for the fire. I remember Moree as a cold flat place with big concrete wheat silos next to the railway siding. I learnt how to split logs with an axe, how it was all about timing, balance and hitting with the grain of the wood. After ten days I had developed a skill that would stay with me. Little did Mr Makim or i know then that I would use that skill 50 fifty years later to chop wood for the sacred fire in Musgrave Park. During that same year, 1965, an aboriginal student Charlie Perkins helped organise a freedom ride through Moree because the town had segregated its public swimming pool - blackfellas and whitefellas were not allowed to swim together. Last night the BBC world service played this interview with Ann Curthoys who was one of the young students who accompanied Charlie Perkins and about 30 others on that Freedom Ride. Ann was a member of the Student Action for Aborigines which was the group that Charlie and others set up. It was this group, along with the local mayor, that ensured that the Moree Pool was de-segregated. There was some violence at the pool when the Freedom Ride came. I like to think that, although I did not know about it when i visited Moree back in 1965 that it helped reduce the racism that existed when i was growing up. The original Freedom Riders were: Charles Perkins, Gary Williams, Aidan Foy, Alan Outhred, Alex Mills, Ann Curthoys, Barry Corr, Beth Hansen, Bob Gallagher, Brian Aarons, Chris Page, Colin Bradford, Darce Cassidy, David Pepper, Derek Molloy, Hall Greenland, Helen Gray, Jim Spigelman, John Butterworth, John Gowdie, John Powles, Judith Rich, Louise Higham, Machteld Hali, Norm Mackay, Paddy Dawson, Pat Healy, Ray Leppik, Rick Collins, Robyn Iredale, Sue Johnston, Sue Reeves, Warwick Richards and Wendy Golding. Radical Times have a 6-minute excerpt of Darce Cassidy's 'on-the-spot' radio documentary of the 1965 Freedom Ride that he made for the ABC. The doco is streaming on Radical Times (Aboriginal Australia 1A). Reference Charles Perkins, A Bastard Like Me, Sydney, 1975