Freedom Ride: Turning point in Australia's race relations

Freedom Ride in 1965 Image copyright Louise Higham

It was a trip to the local swimming pool that changed race relations in Australia.

Eddie Pitt was a teenager living on an Aboriginal mission in the New South Wales (NSW) country town of Moree, and long used to the segregation of everyday life.

He was barred from the pool, had to sit in the seats at the very front of the local cinema and was usually served last at the shops.

Then one day in February 1965, a busload of 29 University of Sydney students drove into town and invited Eddie and his friends to go swimming.

"We were just teenage kids, having a bit of fun till we got up there and found out it was something different," Mr Pitt remembers. "I sit back now and think: 'We made some history back there.'"

Wake-up call

The students, led by the university's first indigenous graduate Charles Perkins, had set out on a two-week "Freedom Ride" through northern NSW to challenge racism and discrimination in regional Australia.

Image copyright Ann Curthoys
Image caption Charles Perkins (middle row, far left) launched the Freedom Ride in New South Wales

They had already been run out of the nearby town of Walgett and their bus forced off the road into a ditch after they protested outside a Returned and Services League (RSL) club that refused membership for indigenous ex-servicemen.

Alerted to their plans, a big crowd of local white people was waiting at the Moree public swimming pool to enforce the indigenous ban.

Fights broke out and the students were pelted with eggs and abuse. One, future Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Spigelman, was punched to the ground.

The clash created headlines across the country and was a wake-up call for many Australians about the discrimination faced by indigenous people.

The Freedom Ride was seen as a turning point in Australia's black-white relations, and it helped win a "Yes" vote at a landmark 1967 referendum to finally include indigenous people in Australia's official population count.

'Stolen generations'

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Ride, 29 University of Sydney students will on Wednesday retrace the original journey to the towns of Dubbo, Walgett, Moree, Bowraville and Kempsey.

Image copyright Pat Healy
Image caption In the 1960s, many indigenous Australians lived as second-class citizens

They will be joined along the way by some of the original "riders", members of the Perkins family and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, and two of Australia's best known musicians - Paul Kelly and Troy Cassar-Daley.

The 1965 students were inspired by the US Freedom Rides a few years earlier, but the decision to act followed criticism of a student protest in Sydney against the treatment of black Americans.

"The reaction from a lot of people was 'Well, why don't you do something about your own problem?'" Mr Spigelman says of the Sydney protest.

At the time, indigenous Australians lived as second-class citizens and mostly in poverty. They were subject to laws that controlled who they could marry, where they could live and what public facilities they could use.

Many were removed from their ancestral lands onto reserves or missions, their children taken from them and put into state care in what would later become known as the "stolen generations".

'Profoundly disappointing'

The Freedom Riders didn't expect to be welcomed by white communities. But nor did they anticipate the hostility that put segregation onto the agenda across the country, and beyond.

The New York Times reported the Freedom Ride bus being "forced off the road" outside Walgett and students being "heckled and pushed by white crowds, barred from staying in a church hall and locked out of a segregated movie house".

It quoted the cinema manager, who closed his show rather than permit Mr Perkins to sit in the section with whites.

The manager said the "darkies ... smell, drink too much and are ignorant".

"This was the first time indigenous affairs had been front-page news in Australia on a more or less continuous basis for a few weeks," says Mr Spigelman.

"It was an event that received attention and raised consciousness in a way that nothing had before, beyond anything that we could have expected at the beginning.

"It convinced a very wide section of the public that things were very, very bad in the treatment of indigenous Australians, both in terms of their poverty and also in terms of active discrimination."

Much has been gained since in civil and land rights, but indigenous Australians still experience significant disadvantage and racism.

Last week, the federal government admitted to a "profoundly disappointing" performance in meeting national targets to improve indigenous health, education and employment.

A long-promised referendum to acknowledge indigenous Australians as the nation's first people in the constitution is still at least two years away, and a 2012 survey by the health department in the state of Victoria found indigenous people still experience "extraordinarily high levels of racism".

'Incredible guts'

For Charlie Perkins' daughter Rachel, the award-winning director of films like Bran Nue Dae, education holds the key to open up opportunities for indigenous people - as it did for her father, who died in 2000 after a lifetime of activism - and to address ignorance.

Image copyright Leon Mead
Image caption Rachel Perkins says the Freedom Ride "showed what individuals can do to change the world"

It was an issue she explored recently in the acclaimed First Contact TV documentary series that took six non-indigenous Australians into indigenous communities.

The show was born of a finding by Reconciliation Australia that six out of 10 non-indigenous Australians have had little or no contact with an indigenous Australian.

It echoed for her the lessons of towns like Moree in the 1960s, where "it was possible to spend your whole life there and never interact with the Aboriginal people who also lived there".

"That's why the racism could flourish under those conditions," she says.

Ms Perkins hopes the anniversary will celebrate the courage of a small group of people - black and white - who stood up against discrimination and forced people to recognise "that Australia has a past, comparable to South Africa and America, in terms of its long-standing segregation".

"We take protests for granted these days, but back in the 1960s in those very small towns, to stand up for what you believed in against the overwhelming majority took incredible guts," she says.

"The Freedom Ride is an important part of Australian history because it drew a line in the sand, it said segregation exists and is no longer acceptable.

"The great legacy for me is that it showed what individuals can do to change the world."

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