50 years on – a freedom rider remembers
50 years on – a freedom rider remembers
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In February 1965 a group of Sydney University students, organised as Student Action for Aborigines, set out on a bus trip through rural and regional NSW. Inspired by the seminal actions of US civil rights activists a few years earlier, the freedom riders aimed to draw attention to the deeply racist underbelly of Australian society. The towns visited included Walgett, Gulargambone, Kempsey, Bowraville and Moree. In many, segregation practices were rife. Ann Curthoys was one of the students aboard the bus. She documents the story in her book Freedom Ride: a freedom rider remembers. Ann spoke to John Percy about her memories.

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How was the Freedom Ride conceived and who was involved?

There was a strong student radical culture in Sydney University by 1964. The growth of student left wing politics combined with having Aboriginal students on campus for the first time – Charles Perkins and Gary Williams. That combination led to the Freedom Ride.

Meetings were held basically of mainly left wing students to form Student Action For Aborigines. A variety of students came together …

In the early stages SAFA wasn’t even sure that they’d have a Freedom Ride, but they wanted to do something dramatic about racial discrimination against Aboriginal people, and it settled down onto a Freedom Ride with a bus trip.

What were your expectations as a young student on the Freedom Ride?

Most students, apart from Charlie Perkins and Gary Williams, didn’t really know what they were getting into. It wasn’t until we got to Wellington, an Aboriginal settlement on the outskirts of town, where people were incredibly poor, that the rest of us realised how serious it really was. You had a general idea that Aboriginal people were discriminated against, but the level of poverty and the health issues really hit home.

We stayed overnight in Dubbo in a hotel, and there was a sign about no Aboriginal people allowed in that part of the hotel. But nothing really happened until we got to Walgett, and there the hostility of the white townsfolk was intense.

What was the impact of the Freedom Ride on the political development of the students involved?

It might have led people more in the direction of what you might call “popular front” politics, people combining over a given issue, coming from different perspectives. It’s hard to answer about the Freedom Ride in isolation. The anti-Vietnam War campaign took over very quickly, which radicalised more people than Aboriginal politics. For me there was also the feminist dimension; this started to have an impact in the 1970s. But the Freedom Ride was early in the process of the 1960s radicalisation, so it’s an important spark.

How much do you think has changed in the 50 years since?

A lot’s changed, yet some things are stubbornly the same. We had a Freedom Ride with 34 students, 32 of whom were not Aboriginal. That could not happen now; there’s a greater presence of Aboriginal students at university, taking leadership roles on Aboriginal issues. The follow-up Freedom Rides have been increasingly Indigenous. There’s been a huge growth in Aboriginal leadership, activism and organisation, so that when you now go to country towns there’s a lot of protocol, people you have to see. In the past every power structure was white, while in some towns now there’s a strong land council and other forms of Aboriginal leadership. For me that’s a big step forward.

What the Freedom Ride was protesting was institutionalised segregation – now it’s not legal, it’s not institutionalised, but there’s still a lot of voluntary segregation of communities. Back then some Aboriginal men still had jobs as shearers, railway workers. Today a lot of that has gone. On the other hand there is more employment in towns of Aboriginal people.

Certainly racism and discrimination still persist. But it’s been taken control of by the establishment in some ways, and been pushed further into the background, further into the outback.

Yes, the whole Hanson episode revealed the continuing depths of racism and the continuing anti-Aboriginal feeling. Things can still be pretty terrible in country towns …

Land rights is really important in identity and connection to country, but it doesn’t necessarily create an economic base for people.

There have to be real changes at a cultural and educational level. There have been some changes at the higher levels of education, but not real changes at the level of economic sustainability.

Tell us about the commemoration events being organised, which Sydney University is financing.

Firstly, there’s the re-enactment, going to four country towns, joining up with local community events. Then there’s the big performance that Rachel Perkins is organising, with Troy Cassar Daley and others.

Then there’s the one I’m most involved in, a reunion dinner on 13 February which is going to unveil a plaque at the university to commemorate the Freedom Ride. I’ve been involved in trying to track down the original Freedom Riders, which is not easy. Everybody went in very different directions, around the world and around Australia.

The Freedom Ride was certainly a challenge to the establishment. Now the establishment at Sydney University has embraced it. How do you feel about that?

I have mixed feelings about it, because the Freedom Ride was an intensely political event, and there were political disagreements. But once it happened and had become a success and Charles Perkins had become this very well-known community figure, it’s as if those disagreements had gone. I think it’s because it succeeded, people did think that we’ve got a level of racial discrimination here, so it’s gone into consciousness in this positive way. Initially there was a lot of criticism of going into towns, stirring up trouble, then moving on and leaving the local Aboriginal people to handle it. And I suppose the other thing is that most people now would give at least lip service to the idea that Aboriginal people should at least have opportunities, respect …

I think one of the points that some of the Freedom Riders want to make is that at the time the university gave no support whatsoever. It was totally hands off then. And now, the university wants to own it, which is a major change.

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