Many Australians learn about the 1961 freedom ride movement in the “deep south” of the United States. Fewer learn that this movement inspired similar action in the “deep north” of rural NSW. At midnight on February 12, 1965, the University of Sydney’s first Indigenous student, Charles Perkins, led 28 other student activists on a bus trip to investigate segregation and racism in rural NSW communities. According to original activists Ann Curthoys and Brian Aarons, the non-Indigenous students on the tour were “shocked” by what they found: “Desperately poor living conditions … white people convinced of their racial superiority, and exclusion of Aboriginal people from the basic amenities of a country town.” The students reacted with protests, including that Aboriginal ex-servicemen deserved to join Walgett RSL, racial restrictions at Moree baths should be lifted, and Aboriginal locals should not be confined to the front of Bowraville Picture Theatre. In an attempt to curb the protests, a driver at Walgett rammed the bus, forcing it off the road. These dramatic incidents, however, only furthered the cause of the riders. As Curthoys and Aarons stated, media coverage provoked “some serious soul-searching in urban and rural NSW”.
The media coverage of the 2015 Freedom Ride has likewise been thought-provoking. The limitation of prioritising four towns in four days, unlike the original visit to 15-odd towns over two weeks, could not prevent the hype on social media. Continuous updates via the Facebook page “Freedom Ride 50th Anniversary” and the Twitter hashtag #freedomride50 attracted the attention of thousands of Australians. It was heart-warming to witness the enthusiasm of the young and old, the Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike at the parades, forums, barbecues and concerts hosted in the towns of Dubbo, Walgett, Moree and Kempsey. Aboriginal singer Amos Morris praised the upbeat vibe at a concert featuring music legends Troy Cassar-Daley and Paul Kelly. “It was amazing … probably one of the best things that has happened to Kempsey in a long time,” Morris remarked.
Continuing the vision of Charles “Charlie” Perkins were 29 current university students and 11 of the original Freedom Riders from 1965. The students were selected by Kyol Blakeney, the new President of the university’s Student Representative Council (SRC) and the first Indigenous person elected to that role. “I was looking for passion … I was looking for diversity,” Blakeney told reporters. He chose a mix of local and international students, some familiar with Indigenous issues and some unfamiliar, in order to maximise the learning experience for all.
Blakeney emphasised that “the important thing is to actually sit down and listen to the community and see what they want”. Indeed, student riders Max Hall and Samantha Jonscher discovered that locals “were not only willing but desperate to share their stories”. Auntie May from Moree shared the isolation and disempowerment her people are facing, the lack of amenities and the need for greater respect from the government. Moree has lost its drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre due to an apparent funding shortage. Adding to the controversy, Moree Plains Shire Council resisted calls to formally apologise for its segregated past. In Dubbo, meanwhile, locals like Craig Biles were pushing for greater emphasis on Aboriginal history and culture to rebuild Indigenous morale. This process, Biles believes, is vital for the youth he works with at the Orana Juvenile Justice Centre. “Until we, as Aboriginal people, understand our own history we don’t have a foundation,” he stated.
Native languages are a flailing foundation in Walgett, where teachers require more resources to sustain local languages. In Kempsey, employment for Indigenous people lags behind improvements in education. The 2015 riders actively documented these and other issues facing Indigenous Australians, such as inequalities in health and mental health, substandard housing, bureaucratic barriers to progress and the ongoing desire for Constitutional recognition. “We want to expose these issues that are still there to mainstream Australia; we want to put pressure on the government to act pretty quickly on fixing these issues,” stated Kyol Blakeney.
Looking back to 1965, original rider Hall Greenland reflected that “more important than the trip itself was the result of the trip. The changing of consciences, the raising of awareness, the determination that we had to do something.” The original riders witnessed the landmark 1967 referendum, the invention and dissemination of Aboriginal flags, Native Title rulings and other acts of solidarity. The new riders also envisage positive outcomes. “This [ride] was not a re-enactment, but a revival,” tweeted student Aparna Balakumar.
Compiling a report of their findings will assist the students to continue advocating for Indigenous communities. At least they will have the official support of their university, unlike the 1965 riders. The new Freedom Ride Scholarship Fund at the University of Sydney accompanies a 65 per-cent targeted increase in Indigenous students by 2016. Deputy Vice-Chancellor Shane Houston, himself an Indigenous Australian, is striving to improve students’ cultural competency and to address institutional racism. His definition of equality is insightful for many human rights issues: “It’s not about being the same, but about having the right to be different and not suffer any disadvantage.” This was the vision set in motion by the freedom riders. Despite the long road ahead to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians, Kyol Blakeney dreams that “one day we won’t need a freedom ride – it’ll just be a ride”.