By Josh Ridgeway
Listening to the soothing tones of Troy Cassar-Daley and Paul Kelly live in Dubbo, I couldn’t help but feel the lyrics of their new song “Freedom Ride” echo through the hearts and minds of hundreds scattered among the grass at the local showground.
The concert formed part of a 4-day reenactment honouring the 50th Anniversary of the 1965 Freedom Ride. Inspired by the American 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, Charles Perkins and students from the University of Sydney’s “Student Action for Aborigines” (SAFA) group set out to expose racism and segregation in country New South Wales. Their trip was a huge success and a milestone for Aboriginal Affairs in NSW and across the country, highlighting extensive blatant racism and calling for better relationships, improved services and access to education for Aboriginal people.
Fifty years later, a similar delegation has retraced parts of that original journey. Last month, I had the privilege of joining original riders, current students, Charles’ daughter and celebrated filmmaker, Rachel Perkins, media and guests on the journey of a lifetime, travelling to Dubbo, Walgett, Moree, Bowraville and Kempsey to reconnect with community and establish just how much change had been made. And boy was it an emotional journey.
Speaking to Sydney University Students’ Representative Council president Kyol Blakeney it was obvious there was a lot of pride and joy, but despite the celebration he says change on the ground has been gradual.
“We got to Dubbo on the first day, and they told us there aren’t a lot of job opportunities for blackfellas out there. You’ve got the Juvenile Justice Centre out there… filled with blackfellas. There are drug problems in some communities as well. But language is being taught here… we want to see that through Moree, Walgett and Kempsey too.”
As we marched alongside hundreds of locals down the main street in the blazing heat I could feel the connections and support in every town. There was a feeling of empowerment in the air.
For NSWALC North Coast Councillor Tina Williams, walking alongside close friends and loved ones in Bowraville and Kempsey will always hold a close and meaningful connection.
“I'm proud to be involved in it and to be here with family to continue the fight for our rights and our freedom. In saying that, I must acknowledge my Uncle Gary Williams who was a part of the original Freedom Ride. Although he caught the bus from Bowraville to Kempsey it's still a significant voyage to be a part of - he too was a student at Sydney University. So I take my hat off to him as his niece and I'm proud to be following that journey.”
As I watched with a chuckle as students joined original riders in song and dance each night I began to wonder – the reenactment on its own is all well and good, but goodwill alone would do little to clear out drug issues from our communities or help create sustainable employment and vital services. I kept asking myself what we could do now to make positive change on the ground. If we are to commemorate the event again 50 years from now we can’t afford to hear the same story about gradual improvements to people’s lives.
This is the question all students were tasked with answering on the trip – what’s next?
It wasn’t until after speaking with some of the original riders on the bus that I understood that acknowledgement was the key and speaking out and taking action was opening the door. Alan Outhread recalled the willingness and political acumen of Charles Perkins as he led the students and activists and blackfellas to raise awareness that led to significant political and social change.
“I remember that he was a fairly powerful person. It was clear he had the ability to lead people…to get people involved and acting. It meant that we felt we could do something because he was the one advising us.”
And I think that’s the key – we must all fight our own fights on our own levels every day. Whether you believe in constitutional recognition or decolonisation or change in or out of the halls of political power, the original Freedom Riders have taught us that we must be heard. We cannot stay silent.
As the bus made its way from town to town, everyone took their own time to reflect on their journey. Student Samuel Beattie says his personal revelation came when he heard about the high levels of Sorry Business.
“I was speaking to a lady in Dubbo on Wednesday night and she was talking about burying her brother the Friday before that and just the number of funerals she went to. Just expressing to me the grief her life has become… it's become a permanent part of her life. And she said she's lost her spiritual basis because of that, she just felt emptiness. And I think that's something Aboriginal people in our country are feeling quite often that the idea that coming together for an event like this for a celebration is a great thing to do but it's a break from the fact that a lot of times these communities come together is at funerals to recognise the passing of a community member. So it's been a real experience, a taut experience between those two extremes - celebration and recognition today”.
Running ahead to snap pictures of the rousing marches, captive forums and evening celebrations, I realised the importance of my place in this journey too. As a Worimi man and a digital enthusiast I’ve always found fascination in the power of images, both still and moving. Capturing the moments of joy and sadness, anger, loss and love are what I live for. Who can forget the photos of Charlie and the kids in the local Moree pool, the SAFA group protesting outside the Walgett RSL? The media in 1965 played a pivotal role in raising national awareness of the injustice our communities were subjected to, and here, today I was helping tag our moment in history.
Behind the lens, photographers and videographers provide their personalised window into places and people we otherwise would have never met. We can freeze time too, if just for a moment, to contemplate where we are and where we’re headed.
For NSWALC, land, economic independence and self-determination drive change. North West Councillor Anne Dennis believes NSWALC and Local Aboriginal Land Councils will continue to play a vital role in supporting our communities to engage positive and effective solutions.
“I think the opportunity for LALCs and NSWALC is to develop that partnership with non-Aboriginal communities (and) with the shire councils to start to address the social issues and the things that we're talking about every day because really the LALCs deal with social issues, looking at the infrastructure, housing conditions – these conditions are still quite poor out in our regions – and how we can actually work together to start to develop some real strategies, how we can deal with all the issues that impact on our people.”
Driving into our final stop of Kempsey in the pouring rain the original riders listened to the stories of Dunghutti Elders about their time with Uncle Charles Perkins. As everyone gathered for the final concert, the path ahead became clear.
NSWALC Mid-North Coast Councillor Peter Smith says for students on the bus the challenge will be to take what they’ve learnt from this journey one step further.
“I'd like the students on the Freedom Ride to take whatever information they received from Elders, from all the communities – take it back, assess it and go ahead to try and make change.”
To relive the commemorations, check out our great photos at https://www.facebook.com/nswalc/photos_stream and while you’re there please like our page!