As some of you may remember I was invited to speak at the Youth Affairs Network Queensland conference back in August 2014. In many ways the most challenging experience of my time there was to be faced with my ignorance of the Indigenous peoples and cultures of Australia.
Thus on a weekend when a film about the struggle of Black Americans, ‘Selma’, is sanitised in the self-congratulatory glitz of Hollywood’s hubris, it is timely to recall the little known Freedom Ride of 1965, Student Action for Aborigines.
Freedom Riders Ann Curthoys and Brian Aarons reflect:
Fifty years ago, from February 12 to 26, 1965, Charles Perkins led a group of students, including us, from the University of Sydney on a freedom ride.
We travelled by bus to protest against racial discrimination against Aboriginal people in New South Wales country towns such as Walgett, Moree, Bowraville and Kempsey.
Although we had done our best to prepare, the non-Aboriginal students were shocked by what we found: desperately poor living conditions on fringe settlements, missions on which white managers controlled every aspect of Aboriginal people’s lives, white people convinced of their racial superiority, and exclusion of Aboriginal people from the basic amenities of a country town.
So, we protested against the exclusion of Aboriginal people from RSL clubs in Walgett, swimming pools in Moree and Kempsey, and picture theatres in Bowraville.
The angry reaction of the white townsfolk to our protests made it clear to a broad Australian public that racial discrimination was alive and well, and led to some serious soul-searching in urban and rural NSW.
There were intense debates not only over the racial discrimination we exposed, but also over the truly dire situation of most Aboriginal people in gaining access to decent housing, health, and education.
The Freedom Ride was an important catalyst for some substantial changes in Aboriginal affairs over the next 10 years or so.
Significantly, it brought Charles Perkins to prominence as a passionate and articulate Aboriginal leader who was not afraid to tell white Australians just how disastrous their racism was for the lives and opportunities of his people.
At this very moment a bus of 50 people, including original riders and a new generation of students from the Sydney University, is partially retracing the route of that first ride. One snapshot of their progress can be read here – Freedom Ride: revisiting the dip in the pool that changed a segregated town
In 1965, Charles Perkins and his fellow Sydney University students ran the gauntlet of booing, fruit-throwing residents to take a group of Indigenous children for a swim in the town pool.
As for Charles Perkins, a formidable and controversial figure on the Australian landscape, I was astonished to discover that in his early twenties, whilst in England, he worked for a brief period around 1957 down the same pit at the same time as my dad. In an interview shortly before his death Charles spoke well about his time in the Lancashire coalfield.
But Lancashire people are generally very good indeed. They’re very earthy people, very friendly. They just take you as they find you, you know and they’re not that wealthy. They sort of … you have what they have and if you can put up with that and cop that and you accept that, well then that’s fine, and you go along with it. And I did. I was able to move amongst them very easily and I used to go to all the dances all the time, and I used to go to the pubs with all the blokes even though I wasn’t a drinker. And I used to sing along with them and enjoy it. And nobody ever came and asked me did I have a ticket to be there, or you know, nobody ever called me a ‘boong’ or a nigger. They always wondered who I was. I was sometimes taken for a dark Greek or Italian or Maori and so on, but nobody really bothered with that. They didn’t want to know. They knew I was an Australian. They were very pleased with me being an Australian. They liked Australians. So they were lovely people, lovely people, and I stayed, as I said before, with Mr. and Mrs. Tilley in Wigan, and they just treated me as a son.