The 1965 Freedom Ride is regarded as a significant and pivotal moment in Australian political history.
It is a moment that continues to be remembered and reflected on in our schools, universities and through social activist movements.
This year is the 50th anniversary and a reenactment is taking place to retrace the steps of the original group of 29 University of Sydney students. It was these students, inspired by the Freedom Rides of the United States in 1961, who took a bus trip through NSW country towns to “shine a light” on race relations and the living conditions of Aboriginal people.
The NSW Aboriginal Land Council, as the peak representative network of Aboriginal people in NSW, is partnering with the University and the Charlie Perkins Trust, to support some of the original Freedom Riders and Aboriginal communities, alongside current students and staff, to recreate the experience.
For many, the anniversary is a time to reflect on their experiences of living in country NSW in the 1960s.
Former Moree resident and academic Darryl French remembers the Freedom Ride coming through his town.
“It was a pretty tense time because of the level of racism in our region,” he said. “When I was a child, it was pretty scary actually. In a way, I felt naïve. I couldn’t understand how I was sitting in a classroom with kids but then not be able to swim in the same pool as them.
“The Freedom Ride was positive in that it opposed those sorts of discriminatory practices at a local level, but I think change has been gradual in society at large.”
Despite a full program of events for the 50th anniversary, including commemorative exhibitions, film screenings and community breakfasts, it’s not the first time a reenactment has been held.
Renee Williamson was one of the organisers of the 40th anniversary and said it had a particularly positive impact.
“We were looking at marking the anniversary and wanted to go out and see what had changed in those regions, look at the current situation with racism in those towns and importantly, try to look at it from a youth perspective,” she said.
That event resulted in the development of an education kit that schools could use to talk about significant social issues affecting Australian society.
The focus this year will be much the same. Acting General Manager of Moree Shire Council, Mitchell Johnson says, “The feeling around the reenactment is very positive and our focus is on the celebration of achievement. It’s also good to engage with the younger generation. Our local high schools will be playing the Freedom Ride documentary to students. It’s good for them to know how much things have changed.”
Although many still believe there is a long way to go in addressing some of the social inequalities the Freedom Ride aimed to highlight, the event is largely acknowledged as something that “paved the way” for much social change.
NSWALC Chairperson Craig Cromelin believes the Freedom Ride was critical in influencing the emergence of the Land Rights movement. “It was certainly a key part in a sequence of importance events. And it was these events that really changed people’s lives,” he said. “We honour the determination and courage of not just the Freedom Riders but also those community members who showed great courage themselves to fight for their rights.”
The University of Sydney’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) Professor Shane Houston, said, “it was one of the key events that helped put us on a path to a more tolerant and responsive society.
“The Freedom Ride was born out of the passion for justice of University of Sydney students and became a critical part of the awakening of the nation’s conscience on Aboriginal affairs.”
Kyol Blakeney, who is the first Aboriginal man to hold the position of President of the University’s Student Representative Council and who will be leading the reenactment, agreed. “The Australian Freedom Rides were a catalyst towards the overwhelming ‘yes’ vote in the 1967 referendum, and the breaking down of institutionalised segregation,” he said.
The influence of the Freedom Ride at a broader level is well acknowledged, but Renee Williamson said it’s also important not to forget the impact the Freedom Ride had on individuals.
“I think it inspired many of the people who were involved. If you look at the original participants, many of them have gone on to have high-profile careers, which enabled them to more actively influence change. I’d like to think their participation in the original Freedom Ride inspired them to do that,” she said.
One example is Jim Spigelman, one of the original Riders who went on to become Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court and who currently chairs the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Another is Gary Williams, an Aboriginal student from the University of Sydney who joined the Freedom Ride part way through, in the town of Bowraville. Gary was also then a very active member of Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA) alongside Charles Perkins. From his early involvement in activism and participation in the Freedom Ride, he went on to become a champion of Land Rights.
“I’m extremely proud of my Uncle Gary, who along with Charles Perkins and other students stood up against segregation, discrimination and the poor living conditions endured by Aboriginal people in many New South Wales towns,” NSWALC North Coast Region Councillor Tina Williams said.
“There is little doubt that the hard fought gains brought about by the Freedom Rides laid the foundation for Land Rights and ultimately the passage of the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act. We honour the Freedom Riders who showed great courage, often in the face of hostile local reaction, to imagine a better future for their kids and grandkids.”
Much of the focus of the anniversary is on how to use the opportunity and the history from which it is inspired, to keep improving social outcomes for Aboriginal people.
“I don’t think we can be complacent about things,” Darryl French said. “We’ve got a hell of a long way to go, particularly in areas like education, health and employment. But by continuing to stand up, we hope things can and will change.”
In addition to drawing national and international attention to major social issues in the hope of influencing policy making at the broader level, Renee Williamson argues that it is the communities and families that should remain “front of mind” for activists and decision makers.
“In terms of the reenactment, it is such an important part of our history to mark,” she said. “It’s also important to ‘check in’ and actually hear from the communities themselves about how much racism is being addressed and what has actually changed for them. In going forward, our measure should be and always continue to be, how much has improved for real people on the ground.”