Freedom Ride – followup questions

written by Darce Cassidy in 2014 answering questions about the Freedom Ride

Origins – I was one of a small group of members of the ALP club.  We took advantage of Sydney University’s Commem  Day.  This was an annual event when traditionally students performed stunts and pranks in the city. The press was full of stories about the mistreatment of African Americans and we decided to introduce some politics in the traditional stunts and pranks performed by the students.  We decided to burn a Fiery Cross outside the US Consulate in the centre of the city, and to distribute leaflets.

Why a Freedom Ride?
The bus trip was inspired by the Freedom Rides in the United States and also by a demonstration organised by the Sydney University ALP club, many of whose members joined the Freedom Ride.

We put together a leaflet informing students that there would be a “happening” in the city outside the US consulate. 

I was working for the ABC and I had the fiery cross in the boot of my car.  It was made from an old wooden clothes line.  With it was a metal waste bin with the letters KKK on the side and a pile of bricks to weigh down the bin and the cross.  The cross was covered in a pair of my old pajamas and soaked in kerosine.  I left work from the ABC in my lunch hour, drove into city and,  joined by some other ALP club members started handing out leaflets concerning the situation in Mississippi and other parts of the South in the U.S.  As the crowd grew we set the cross alight.  All hell broke loose.  Police arrived and started arresting students randomly.  In my ABC suit, trying not to look like a student, I walked back to my parked car.

The police waded in.  I have some good photographs of the cops. I can’t remember how many were arrested – about a dozen I think.  There were plenty of headlines, and letters to the editor.  One of those letters asked why the students were demonstrating about was was happening in the U.S. when the plight of the Aborigines in Australia.  At the next meeting of the ALP club the letter was discussed, and there was general agreement that the letter writer had and point. The decision to investigate the condition of Aborigines in Australia grew out of this. A new organisation, Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA), was formed.

SAFA was a broad based organisation.  Some of its members saw it primarily as a study tour, while others wanted to focus on discrimination against Aborigines and action against it. The key leaders were Charles Perkins and Jim Spigelman.  Spigelman  was a right wing member of the ALP Club who would later become a judge and Chairman of the ABC.  Others included communists and conservative Christians. All through the bus trip important decisions were made by after time to debate and a formal vote.

Why does the CD ends abruptly in Moree?
In the demonstration outside the swimming pool I was attacked from behind by a local resident and held briefly in a headlock until someone pulled him off me. I only discovered five minutes later, after I had collected my wits that he had cut through my microphone cable, putting and end to my ability to continue recording.

There is a second reason why my program ends there. I did not have enough leave from the ABC.  I had asked them for more leave, but leave was refused.  I was ordered to return, despite the fact that I had a bag full of tapes.

Was there any follow up?
There was plenty of follow up.  After the bus trip there were numerous smaller groups who visited the trouble spots. 

Did you return?
I went back several times.  I stayed in Walgett with Harry Hall, one of the Aboriginal leaders.  Harry, with his wife and his daughter Pat, in a humpy on the banks of the river.

Together with Sue-Anne Loftus I visited Bowraville where we were both arrested.

We were charged with trespassing on the Aboriginal reserve without the permission of the Minister.  In Bowraville, the government could determine who could enter an Aboriginal Reserve.  Section 8(1) of the Aborigines Protection Act read at the time:
“All reserves shall be vested in the Aborgines Welfare Board, and it shall not be lawful for any person other than an aborigine , or an officer under the board, or a person acting under the board’s direction,or under the authority of the regulations, or a member of the police force, to enter or remain upon or be within the limits of the reserve upon which aborigines are residing, for any purpose whatsoever.

The Council for Civil Liberties sent a barrister, Trevor Martin, to represent us in the Bowraville Court.  We were acquitted.  I later wrote in the Sydney University student paper Honi soit:

“So British Justice triumphs once again, thanks to the Council for Civil Liberties…… There is no system of Legal Aid in NSW worthy of the name.  Of course there are voluntary organisations like the Council for Civil Liberties – but the great majority of country Aborigines have never heard of the CCL and the CCL rarely hears of them.  This case has taught the police in Bowraville something.In future they will be a little bit more wary of students. But what has it done for Aborigines?  Nothing. Bowraville will continue to the a “Police Town” , at least as far as the Aborigines are concerned. Vagrancy will consist of “doing something the police don’t like when you haven’t got a job and “Offensive Behavior” will continue to mean “doing something the police don’t like when you have got a job.”

We were acquitted under a technicality.

Why are the audio recordings so good?

The tapes were recorded on a Stellavox (I think it was Swiss made).  They used tiny 3inch spools with standard quarter inch tape.  At seven and a half inches per second  they quickly filled up.

When I made the documentary from the Stellavox tapes I used the standard Rola machines in used by the ABC in the 1960’s.  The CD you have is simply a copy of the program.  I’m not aware of any digital recording except when I copied the edited program to CD. 

Where you in the bus when it was Run off the road?

Yes I was on the bus when we were run off the road.  The tape recorder was packed away but I was able to record interviews with the driver and passengers when the bus came to a stop and I could retrieve my tape recorder from the baggage.

Were you a Participant, a recorder or both?
This was always a difficult issue.  I paid my own way and the ABC gave me recreation leave (which was an entitlement) but this was always a grey area.  When I phoned through reports to the ABC I was described as “one of the students” and the ABC never paid me a cent for work which was done while I was on leave.  I had taken recreation leave but the ABC had permitted me to take a recorder with me.  The picture here is murky.  Observer or participant?

Is the quality of life better or worse

In the cities and some of the larger towns I think things have got a little better, but not so in many of the more remote areas.

I went as a participant which is one reason why the ABC  did not broadcast my program until many years (about fifteen years I think) after the event. 

Clearly there was a conflict of interest here.  How could I be a leading member of SAFA (Student Action for Aborigines) and at the same time an objective reporter?  I had acknowledged this to the ABC and suggested suggested that I should give my raw recordings to a more senior journalist and to let him or her produce the program using my recordings as simply part of the raw material.  The ABC’s answer was to put it all in the too hard basket. 

I then went away and quietly put together a program I from the raw recordings that I had made.  I was what was called a “specialist trainee” and the documentary that I put together was the first radio program that I had ever made.  It ends abruptly because I was on leave from the ABC at the time and my leave had expired by the time we reached Moree .  I requested an extension of my leave but they refused outright.  I therefore had to leave the bus and catch a train back to Sydney. 

After my return to Sydney I went through the raw material I had collected on tape, and put together a documentary.  It was not broadcast until many years after the event.  For the ABC at that time this program was too hot to handle.

I gave my recordings, both the raw tapes and the documentary, to ABC archives.  It sat there for many years and after fifteen years or so, when the events had become history rather than politics, it was dug out of the archives  and broadcast.

As for hostility yes.  Outside the Moree baths I was attacked from behind by a local resident and held briefly in a headlock until someone pulled him off me.  I only discovered five minutes later, after I had collected my wits, that he had cut through my microphone cable, putting an end to my ability to continue recording.

However the Freedom Ride was more than the bus trip.

Fiftieth Anniversary of Freedom Ride

Sydney University have recently invited me and my wife to a dinner to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Ride.  There will also be a bus trip to revisit some of the sites. I have accepted the invitation to attend the dinner in Sydney but have not yet responded to an invitation to join a bus tour of some of key places we visited.  I’m still thinking about it.