Student Freedom Riders

Mezzanine level

Thirty participants in front of the SAFA bus on the Australian Freedom Ride, in the town of Kempsey, New South Wales
Thirty participants in front of the SAFA bus on the Australian Freedom Ride, in the town of Kempsey, New South Wales on 25 February 1965.

Image courtesy of Ann Curthoys/Wendy Golding.

Members of the 1965 Freedom Ride included Charles Perkins, Gary Williams, Ann Curthoys, Darce Cassidy, Jim Spiegelman, Pat Healy, Warwick Richards, Robyn Iredale, Aidan Foy, Alan Outhred, Helen Gray, Norm McKay, Louise Higham, John Gowdie, Machteld Hali, John Powles, Wendy Golding, Bob Gallagher, Chris Page, Sue Johnston, Paddy Dawson, Judith Rich, Colin Bradford, John Butterworth, David Pepper, Barry Corr, Beth Hansen, Derek Molloy, Brian Aarons, Sue Reeves, Hall Greenland, Ray Leppick, Rick Collins and Alex Mills. Gerry Mason also travelled with the group as a friend of Charles Perkins’, while Bill Pakenham and Ernie Albrecht drove the bus.

This image shows the members of the Australian Freedom Ride in the town of Kempsey, New South Wales on the second-last day of their bus tour in February 1965. The Freedom Ride was a form of non-violent direct action taken by a politically disparate coalition of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous University students on a bus. Its purpose was to witness, publicise and challenge segregation and racial discrimination against Aboriginal people in regional towns in New South Wales. The students travelled through Wiradjuri, Kawambarai, Gumbaynggirr, Gamilaraay, Bundjalung, Dhan-gadi, Ngaku and Ngumbar country. The tour was inspired by civil rights activism and non-violent direct action in the United States of America – including the CORE Freedom Rides - and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The Australian Freedom Rides brought Australian segregation into domestic and international spotlights, and called on non-Indigenous Australians to consider their personal implication in racism and racial politics at home. Widespread media coverage of the Freedom Rides focused national attention, and lent momentum to the campaign to change the Constitution – by alteration of s51(xxvi) and removal of s127 – which occurred by referendum in 1967.

In the early nineteen sixties, university students in Sydney rallied against the White Australia immigration policy. They were arrested at peaceful demonstrations in Sydney against segregation and discrimination under Jim Crow laws in the American South and under apartheid in South Africa. They were variously supported and criticised in Australian and international news media – but also called upon to engage politically with discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and segregation in Australia. For many non-Indigenous students, the call to address racism at home came as a shock. The Aboriginal civil rights movement had been building since before the 1930s, but its imperatives arrived slowly in student political consciousness. Despite their political awareness, in post-World War II Australia many young people knew just enough to look away from the colonial histories that contextualised their own lives and opportunities.

In 1957, the National Union of Australian University Students (NUAUS) inaugurated its university scholarship scheme for Aboriginal students (Abschol). In 1963, 17 year-old Gary Williams of Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung country began an Arts degree alongside Arrente and Kalkadoon man Charles Perkins. They were the first Aboriginal University of Sydney students. Gary Williams had family connections into Sydney’s Aboriginal activist community, and 27 year-old Charles Perkins was beginning to speak out as a young leader in Aboriginal affairs. Burgeoning student political interest in Aboriginal rights campaigns saw the formation of Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA) in 1964; a group of students - including Perkins and Williams - from the Abschol committee, from various Christian denominations, from the Socialist, Liberal, Jewish, ALP and Labour clubs and from diverse familial, religious and political backgrounds. Freedom Rider, historian and Professor Ann Curthoys recalls, ‘The only thing we really shared was a concern for Indigenous rights, and a commitment to non-violent direct action.’ (NMA Public Lecture, 2002) The group met, fundraised, began to self-educate and debated next actions in their work to publicise and combat racial segregation in Australia. With support from TV journalist and University of Sydney lecturer in Government Peter Westerway, Charles Perkins began to understand the importance of campaign optics in the time of television media. With this growing awareness, he discussed it with friends and took it to the members of SAFA: ‘Shall we have a Freedom Ride?’

The hired bus departed Sydney University around midnight on Friday 12 February. Its route took in the towns of Orange, Wellington, Dubbo, Gulargambone, Bowraville, Walgett, Moree, Boggabilla, Lismore, Kempsey and Taree. Though they took inspiration from the USA and have come to be identified by the American moniker, those on the bus didn’t call themselves Freedom Riders. Theirs was a solidarity- and relationship-building exercise, a media spectacle and a learning process. The banner slung across the side of their vehicle read, ‘Student Action for Aborigines’ – it was the SAFA bus tour. In each town, SAFA members communicated with and surveyed local Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inhabitants in an attempt to grasp some of the local context. Local amenities and businesses were often partially, informally, or wholly and formally segregated, communities were often hostile, and living conditions on reserves and missions were shocking to many of the students.

Twenty-nine people were on the bus at its departure. Four left and five more joined the group in the course of the tour. Gary Williams was one of these; he was called home on family business before the tour, he rejoined the bus in Bowraville and confined his activism to locations on his own country. For this reason Charles Perkins was the only Aboriginal group member for much of the tour. The group’s reception in Aboriginal communities varied - from strong support, participation and cooperation, to suspicion, uncertainty and apprehension about the consequences of the students’ stance. The students picketed and demonstrated in Walgett, Moree, Bowraville and Kempsey, where they witnessed outright and formal discrimination in business practice or segregation by local ordinance, they had some support from within the local Aboriginal community, and media coverage was likely. Many non-Indigenous locals met the group with fear, antagonism, anger and aggression. The students were perceived as privileged leftwingers from the city: long-haired, clueless kids interfering in communities they didn’t understand.

On February 15, the students targeted the Walgett RSL (Returned & Services League of Australia) for its exclusion of Aboriginal ex-servicemen. They demonstrated outside from noon until 7pm amidst heckles and jeers from a crowd of more than 300 local people. Charles Perkins spoke, as did local Aboriginal activists Harry Hall and George Rose. Following the demonstration, the student group was evicted from its previous night’s accommodation in the Church of England hall. The bus left town after 10pm protected by a convoy of cars, escorted a short distance by police, and tailed by a green pickup truck. Some way out of town, the pickup rammed the bus three times and ran it off the road. No-one was hurt; the bus returned to Walgett to make a midnight police report. There was further altercation in the street, but the crowd of fifty or so non-Indigenous locals was eloquently routed by a young, local Murri woman by the name of Pat Walford.

The students travelled on to Moree shadowed by a media entourage. The Moree artesian thermal baths were segregated by a standing resolution of the local Council. Following their survey, SAFA resolved to picket the pool and hold a public meeting. With support from the Thompson’s Row community and local businessman Bob Brown, SAFA’s Sue Johnston attempted to purchase entry to the swimming pool for herself and eight Aboriginal children. It was refused. The students picketed the pool with placards until police and local aldermen decided to allow the children to enter. Charles then arrived with a busload of twenty more Aboriginal children who were admitted as well. The public meeting that evening was well attended and saw rigorous debate. Feeling positive, the students left Moree but found cause to return within 48 hours. The ban on Aboriginal entry to the pool had been rapidly reinstated with Council support. Bob Brown tested it with the help of a group of local Aboriginal children; they were denied and there was unpleasant confrontation. On the students’ return, with support from the Bingara Road community and the Mehi mission, Charles, Bob Brown, nine Aboriginal children and SAFA again sought entry to the pool. They were quickly surrounded by a large, hostile crowd. The students were verbally abused and targeted with eggs, rotten tomatoes and stones, and some were physically assaulted and spat on. The situation continued to escalate until the pool was closed and the Mayor of Moree indicated to the students his willingness to rescind the ban. Police then escorted the demonstrators back onto the bus and ensured their safe passage out of town.

Within the group there was some doubt about the pace and format of the tour, with necessary argument about the confrontational tactics they employed. The risk of sparking hostilities in regional towns by disrupting the status quo was substantial; many non-Indigenous locals reacted to non-violent direct action with violent and defensive anger. As politically-motivated visitors, after demonstrating in each location the students drove away, leaving the local Aboriginal community to negotiate daily life and opportunity with their riled white neighbours. After SAFA’s departure, the situations in Walgett and Moree were volatile, and even the final repeal of the pool ban took time to be renegotiated and resolved. After the bus tour concluded in Sydney, some members of SAFA returned to towns they had picketed to support local Aboriginal communities in their long-term, ongoing work against racism and discrimination - but the students didn’t live the consequences of their campaign. Despite their significant political impact, and despite changes on the ground in regional NSW and the legacy of the Freedom Ride, in the years afterwards some participants recalled the tour with ambivalence.

In the aftermath of the Moree clash, bus driver Bill Packenham resigned. Saints Bus Company sent Ernie Albrecht as his replacement and the tired students continued on to Lismore, Bowraville, Kempsey and Taree. In Bowraville many took note of particularly entrenched and hostile racism. Low on energy, they picketed the Bowra Picture Theatre and engaged locals in discussion with notable support from an articulate, 16 year-old Aboriginal woman named Ann Holten. The Bowra Theatre was not desegregated by the students’ action, though media scrutiny was brought to bear on the practice of segregation in the town. The bus rolled on to Kempsey, where SAFA found a murky undercurrent of discrimination and experienced direct hostility from the Mayor. With twelve or so local Aboriginal children, the students attempted to purchase entry to the pool, which was segregated under a local Council by-law. The children were refused entry, as were Gary Williams and Charles Perkins. The SAFA group picketed, though few people attempted to enter the pool through the blockade and the local response was minimal. The students left Kempsey, visited Taree on the last night of the tour and then Ernie turned the bus towards home.

In the days following their return to the University of Sydney, congratulations, criticism, donations and political commentary rained down on SAFA – the students, particularly Charles, were sought to speak at political events, and chapters of SAFA formed on university campuses across the country. Images, audio and film from the Freedom Ride sparked intense media debate on racial inequity in Australia and galvanised public awareness that it was an urgent reality at home as well as abroad. The Freedom Ride was reported in Europe, Asia, Africa and the USA. Like the residents of regional NSW towns, the media spotlight caused Australians and Australian politicians to feel sudden shame at the nation’s reputation for parochial racism. Blame was variously laid with the State governments, with local communities that practiced segregation on the ground, and with the Commonwealth government that failed to intervene or influence States’ policy directions. SAFA continued its work in Sydney and supported follow-up actions coordinated by local activists in regional NSW. The tour and Charles Perkins’ role as spokesperson made obvious the need for amplification of Aboriginal voices in Aboriginal affairs and politics, and voices were raised – including those in regional communities. This prompted new approaches in the Aboriginal civil rights movement in Australia and built towards the success of the 1967 Referendum, which placed Aboriginal affairs within the Constitutional purview of the Commonwealth.

Since the end of the 1965 Australian Freedom Ride, the action has been celebrated, commemorated, archived and re-enacted. At the fiftieth anniversary, a new generation of Riders set out from Sydney University to travel a similar itinerary, lead by Gomeroi man and student leader Kyol Blakeney and accompanied by several members of the original SAFA tour. The political and grassroots contexts offered great complexity and learning for the Freedom Riders of 1965 and the consequences exceeded their foresight and expectations. These and other uncertainties are necessary corollaries to the recognition of a personal and political imperative to contest the terms upon which we live with law.

Some students in the group went on to contribute and address the significant challenges and fight faced by Indigenous people within the white settler legal system.

Location of MLS Classroom Photo Murals

On the Mezzanine level, in the student locker area, outside the entry to GM 15 (David Derham theatre) a large-scale mural of Student Freedom Riders has been installed. The image depicts the student group Student Action For Aborigines organisation 1965 journey through NSW country towns to draw attention to racism and living conditions faced by Aboriginal people. The placement of this image in the Mezzanine student locker area locates the activity of student activism for Indigenous rights within a student space.  Image courtesy of Ann Curthoys/Wendy Golding.

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