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Student Action for Aborigines, University of Sydney
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Student Action for Aborigines bus at Boggabilla

Hatching the idea

In February 1965 a group of University of Sydney students organised a bus tour of western and coastal New South Wales towns.

Their purpose was threefold. The students planned to draw public attention to the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing.

They hoped to point out and help to lessen the socially discriminatory barriers which existed between Aboriginal and white residents. And they also wished to encourage and support Aboriginal people themselves to resist discrimination.

The students had formed into a body called Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA) in 1964 to plan this trip and ensure media coverage.

Charles Perkins, an Arrente man born in Alice Springs, who was a third year arts student at the university, was elected president of SAFA.

The group included Ann Curthoys who would later write a history of these events, Jim Spigelman who would later become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and Darce Cassidy, an arts student who was also a part-time reporter for the ABC.

In 1964 a University of Sydney protest against racial segregation in the United States had brought comments from members of the public urging students to look to their own backyard if they wanted to draw attention to racial discrimination.

This led to the planning of a fact-finding trip to western New South Wales towns so students could see for themselves the conditions of life for Aboriginal people.

Black and white photo of a group of people standing around and in front of a wood shack. One man is holding a clipboard and appears to be in discussion with two other men.
Charles Perkins speaks to Aboriginal residents at Moree
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Police and locals confront the students at Moree

Where the Freedom Ride went

The Freedom Ride, as it came to be called, included visits to Walgett, Gulargambone, Kempsey, Bowraville and Moree.

Students were shocked at the living conditions which Aboriginal people endured outside the towns. In the towns Aboriginal people were routinely barred from clubs, swimming pools and cafes.

They were frequently refused service in shops and refused drinks in hotels. The students demonstrated against racial discrimination practised at the Walgett Returned Services League, the Moree Baths, the Kempsey Baths and the Boraville picture theatre.

They not only challenged these practices, but they ensured that reports of their demonstrations and local townspeople's hostile responses were available for news broadcasts on radio and television.

Outside Walgett Jim Spigelman trained his home movie camera on the hostile convoy of cars which followed the bus out of town at night and ran it off the road. Darce Cassidy recorded the angry conversations and filed a report to the ABC.

Captured on tape was the vice-president of the Walgett Returned Service League Club who said he would never allow an Aboriginal to become a member. Such evidence was beamed into the living rooms of Australians with the evening news. It exposed an endemic racism. Film footage shocked city viewers, adding to the mounting pressure on the government.

The central role of the film camera in this campaign demonstrated the growing sophistication of activists who recognised the need to show city dwellers what was happening in country towns.

The campaigners drew parallels with civil rights movements elsewhere in the world, especially the United States. The news coverage punctured Australian smugness, borne of ignorance, that racism did not exist in Australia.

Black and white photo of a man with boys who are posing in between swimming.
Charles Perkins with children in Moree pool, 1965

At Moree (northern New South Wales), which was known to be a town where segregation was practised, the students focused on the swimming pool. The pool became a scene of tension and aggression as they attempted to assist Aboriginal children from the reserve outside town to enter the pool while locals angrily defended the race-based ban.

Responses to the ride

Crux, a Student Christian Movement periodical, ran a guest editorial on the significance of the Freedom Ride, and cartoonists like John Frith also addressed the issue.

Overseas newspapers such as the New York Times reported on the Freedom Riders and their reception in New South Wales country towns.

Charles Perkins reported these events to a crowd of 200 attending the 1965 Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) conference in Canberra.

Conference goers heard that one positive result of the students' activities was that the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board publicly announced that it would spend 65,000 pounds on housing in Moree.

Aftermath

Later in the year Harry Hall, president of the Walgett Aborigines' Progessive Association, appealed to Perkins and other Aboriginal activists to return to Walgett to assist in the fight against the colour bar applied at the Oasis Hotel. Perkins and others did return to help in Walgett.

The Freedom Ride through New South Wales towns and the publicity it gained raised consciousness of racial discrimination in Australia and strengthened the campaigns to eradicate it which followed.

References

Australian, 16 February, 17 February, 18 February, 19 February, 25 February, 1965.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Commemorating 40 Years of the Freedom Ride, an online exhibition featuring Ann Curthoys' diary.

Melbourne Herald, 6 March 1965.

Courier-Mail, 18 February 1965.

Ann Curthoys, Freedom Ride, Sydney, 2002.

Charles Perkins, A Bastard Like Me, Sydney, 1975.

Peter Read, Charles Perkins: A Biography, Viking, Melbourne, 1990, pp. 108–9, 111–3, 117.

Charles Rowley, Outcasts in White Australia, Penguin, Sydney, 1972, p. 388.

See also Peter Read, 'Darce Cassidy's Freedom Ride', Australian Aboriginal Studies, 1988, no. 1, for Cassidy's transcript of a radio show which the ABC did not broadcast as it was 'considered too controversial by the ABC management'.

Resources

Further information on the documents referred to in the Civil Rights sections

Resources
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