In February 1965, a group of students from Sydney University travelled through outback towns in New South Wales. They wanted to see how indigenous people were treated, they ended up demonstrating against the injustices they saw. These demonstrations became headline news across Australia. Their trip became known as the Freedom Ride.
Click above to hear Darce’s audio documentary of the Freedom Ride. In 1965, the ABC refused to play this documentary.
The following is Darce’s written account of the Freedom Ride
While the Australian Freedom rides drew their inspiration from the US Civil Rights Movement, the immediate precursor to the Freedom Rides was a demonstration outside the U.S. Consulate in Sydney. On May 6, 1964, students burned a fiery cross, the symbol of the U.S. based racist organisation, the Ku Klux Klan, outside the Consulate in protest.
Some were dressed in white sheets and hoods, in the style of the Ku Klux Klan. The demonstration was in protest against attempts by Senators from the southern U.S. states to block the Civil Rights Bill initiated by President Kennedy and pursued by President Johnson.
More than fifty were arrested, including a TV cameraman. Police removed their identification numbers, and used an extraordinary amount of force against what had been a (literally) fiery, but essentially peaceful, demonstration.
The demonstration outside the US Consulate made headlines around the world, and increased pressure on the US Senate.
In Australia it had a different consequence. A letter writer to the Sydney Morning Herald, Mrs R. Schodde wrote: “Only when all Australians stop treating the aborigine as a second class citizen and accept him into the white society without reservation can our student groups protest against racial discrimination in other counties without hypocrisy“.
As one of the organisers of the demonstration this point struck home to me. It had a similar effect on others.
The focus shifts to Australia
Following the demonstration some time was spent in court.
A number of students had been charged with assaulting police officers’ boots with their heads, and defenses needed to be organised.
After that the focus moved to the situation of the Aborigines.
In June the “Sydney University Organising Committee for Action on Aboriginal Rights” was formed. A public meeting was organised and addressed by Bill Ford, an economics lecturer who had taken part in the U.S. freedom rides. On July 7 there was a demonstration outside parliament house in Sydney.
The “organising committee” faded away after the July demonstration, but a little later Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA) was formed. Charles Perkins, the first Aborigine (along with Gary Williams) to attend a university in Australia, was elected President. (The first Indigenous graduate in Australia was Dr Margaret Valadian from Queensland University in 1966. Ed)
Charles Perkins was born in Alice Springs in 1936. At age 10 his mother, Hetti Perkins, gave permission for him to be taken to an Anglican boys hostel in Adelaide.
His biographer, Peter Read, wrote:
To Perkins, parents like Hetti who agreed to their children’s removal were hoodwinked by the society which allowed the atrocity of separation to occur.
Perkins was angry at the regimentation, the lack of counselling about schoolwork, about homework, about life. He reasoned that Smith (the Anglican priest) protected, fed and physically did what he could for the boys, but he could not replace a mothers love.
The removal of his heritage and culture was the other loss whose significance Perkins did not grasp until many years after he left the home. Did the years away rob him and the other boys of their culture? Is it worth recovering? Should all the separated children, whether their parents assented or not, be counted amongst ‘the stolen generations’?
In 1952 Charles Perkins was apprenticed as a fitter and turner and worked unhappily at the trade for five years until his career as a soccer player took off. He played professional soccer in England for two years before rejecting an offer to play for Manchester United so he could return to Australia as captain-coach of the Adelaide Croatian soccer club.
Back on Australia he joined the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines, and was elected Vice President. Growing in confidence, he moved to Sydney in 1962 to join the Pan Hellenic soccer club. He was appointed captain-coach of Pan Hellenic the following year.
Encouraged by Rev. Ted Noffs, and supported financially by his wife Eileen, Perkins enrolled at Sydney University in 1963. Already active in Aboriginal affairs, Charles Perkins helped to form Student Action for Aborigines in 1964, and was elected President.
In February 1965, after a little over six months detailed organising, Charles led a busload of 29 students into the outback of New South Wales.
The ‘freedom riders’ were a diverse group. Some saw the bus trip as primarily an information gathering expedition, with the findings to be published later. Others saw it as an opportunity to directly confront racism.
For the first few days, as the bus drove west from Sydney, the emphasis was on gathering information. Things changed in Walgett, a town in the far west of New South Wales with a large Aboriginal population. A number of local businesses and institutions discriminated against Aborigines.
We decided to confront the issue. The local RSL Club refused to admit Aborigines, and a picket was organised outside the club. We stood there from around noon until sunset.
At the start, the Walgett Aborigines stood and watched. They seemed unsure of what to make of the students. As the day wore on, Aborigines joined the picket line. Towards evening the crowd grew. Debate between the picketers and the white townspeople grew into arguments, then to abuse from the locals. “Look at ’em”, said one of the locals. “The brains of Australia. You could buy em down the Sydney market at two bob a head.”
There were a few scuffles, and more than a few threats. After the picket we returned to the Anglican church hall where we were staying. Just as they were arranging sentries for the night, and other measures to secure the hall, the Anglican Vicar arrived. He was upset by the demonstration. We were to pack our bags and leave immediately.
Run out of town
Like every other decision, what to do next was debated at length.
The Aborigines offered some old tram cars,on the edge of town, as a place to stay. We rejected this option as too risky. The trams were remote and there was no lighting. There were too many entrances, making them hard to defend. We decided to leave. We were being run out of town. The bus driver was located in his hotel and woken. Bags were packed and the bus loaded.
Members of the Aboriginal community came to farewell us. We sang “So long, its been good to know you”. With tooting horns and cheers, the bus drove off. As we left Charles Perkins shouted, “Give our regards to the RSL”.
We were followed out of town by a long line of cars. As the bus increased speed, so did the cars. Inside the bus, opinion was divided between those who said the cars belonged to local toughs who were going to attack us and those who said that since it was just after ten o’clock, the cars belonged to locals coming home after a night at the pub.
The argument was soon settled. A light truck pulled out of the line of following cars, overtook and tried to force us off the road.
A young women powerfully addresses the crowd
After the bus was run off the road we drove back to Walgett to report the incident to the police. It was nearly midnight when we got back, but it was a hot night, and news soon spread. The bus was parked outside the police station, and as time went by a crowd gathered. On one side of the dry, dusty road were the students and Aborigines, on the other side the white townspeople
A series of arguments broke out, and then a young Aboriginal woman addressed the crowd. She had been quiet earlier in the day, but now she was ready to speak her mind:
(Pat Walford is the young woman speaking – identified 2023)
I‘m black and I’m proud of it and I uphold it too…..You’ve been walking past them all day criticising your own colour. That’s how good the whites are in Walgett – criticising your own colour….Trouble is it’s hurting the whites to see other whites fighting for the blacks. You’ve only got to get out of Walgett to find better white people. Walgett are about the worst class of white people this side of the black stump. It’s only because they’ve got white skin that they hold their head up in the air and get around like they own everything.
You see some of the whites here in Walgett, they think they own Walgett and rent Coonamble but they’ve got nothing. They’re working, white people in Walgett working just like us blacks.
They can look at me and talk about me as much as they like. I was born in Walgett and I intend to die here and I’ll stop here just that long to torment the whites.” excerpt from Darce’s Freedom Ride documentary
When we arrived in Moree we were told that it wasn’t like Walgett. After about a day’s investigation, we found that it was. As in Walgett, segregation was rife.
In Walgett, we had chosen to highlight the fact that the RSL Club refused to admit Aboriginal ex-servicemen.
In Moree, we chose to challenge a discriminatory by-law of the local council which barred Aborigines, or persons “with an admixture of Aboriginal blood” from using the town swimming pool.
Bob Brown, a local store owner (left) had vigorously opposed the regulation when he was a member of the council, but to no avail. With his support and the agreement of the Aboriginal community, we decided to challenge the council.
With their parents’ permission, we collected 8 children from the Aboriginal reserve and drove them to the pool in the bus. At the pool, Bob Brown tried to buy entrance tokens for six adults and for the eight Aboriginal children. At first, the pool management refused, and there was a standoff. The crowd grew, and the pool manager consulted with the Mayor.
After more than an hour, the pool manager relented. He said there was no bar on Aborigines entering the pool, it was simply a matter of cleanliness. If he could inspect the eight children to confirm their cleanliness, they could enter. Eventually, all eight were admitted. It seemed that the ban had been broken.
On leaving Moree, the bus headed for Lismore. Suspicious at so easy a victory, we checked back with Bob Brown. As some had feared, he told us that the ban had been reimposed shortly after we left
There was yet another debate. Should we return to Moree, or continue on to Lismore? The “freedom riders” came from a variety of backgrounds. Many of the white students had not met an Aborigine before. A number came from Christian groups like the Student Christian Movement, others came from a leftist background and one was a member of the conservative Country Party. As with every other decision the proposal to return to Moree was debated at length. We discussed it over meals and debated while the bus travelled, using the microphone the driver usually used to point out tourist attractions.
After the experiences of Walgett and the first confrontation at the Moree pool, everyone was aware that there were risks. We’d all seen the images of burning buses in the American South. There was also the question of the rest of the trip. We were halfway through our tour – what would we do about Lismore and the other towns on our route?
In the end, the decision was clear. To stay away would have been to admit defeat, but as someone said as we headed back to the hot far western town of Moree, Saturday night is a dangerous night in a country town.
A very dangerous night
Back in Moree, the situation soon became ugly. We went to the reserve to find volunteers to demand entry to the pool. The reserve manager tried to stop Aborigines getting on the bus, but he failed. Half a dozen children ran through the gate or climbed the fence to get to the bus. Among them was 14 year old Lyall Munro.
It seemed that the word had spread quickly and that the whole town had gathered outside of the swimming pool. For more than three hours we tried to get the Aboriginal children admitted, but to no avail. Students would take a swimmer to the front entrance, only to have their arms pinned behind their backs and led away. Charles Perkins (left) is being led away by police.
While police and town officials sometimes handled students a little roughly, this was nothing compared to the actions of the townspeople. Peter Read wrote:
“Perkins clearest memories are the flying gravel, the tomatoes and rotten eggs, the spit, the shout …… He thought they were going to be killed.”
My own most vivid memory is of a Black woman and a White woman fighting – tearing hair, scratching and slapping. I’d never seen women fight before. I can still hear the sounds which I tried to record, but failed because someone grabbed me from behind and tried to throttle me. Later I discovered my microphone cable cut.
In the end we were forced to retreat. Covered with rotten fruit and eggs, the bus was escorted out of town by the police. The driver resigned, but the Freedom Ride continued with a new driver.
Confronting Segregation – Walgett Cinema
The bus trip continued for a week after Moree, heading to the coast then back towards Sydney. There were similar scenes along the way, but less violence than at Walgett and Moree. The Freedom Ride continued as front page news for another week.
Followup after the Freedom Ride
In the weeks following we were struck by a cartoon by Bruce Petty in The Australian. It showed a couple of Aborigines looking forlornly around their collection of huts as the students disappeared in a cloud of dust.
It was clear that we could not just go back to our studies and leave things as they were. Alliances were formed with Aboriginal groups in some of the towns we had visited. Walgett had one of the best organised communities, and a branch of the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA) had been formed there. Activity centred around attempts to desegregate the Luxury Theatre, and the Oasis Hotel. Harry Hall, President of the APA, stood for the local council.
In August 1965 a combined SAFA/APA group challenged the segregation of the cinema. Four students and two Aboriginal women were arrested. According to Peter Read, the biographer of Charles Perkins, this was the first time Aborigines had been arrested in a civil rights demonstration.
After a long struggle, led now by the APA, the cinema was desegregated. So too was the Oasis hotel. Ironically, the Aboriginal community later purchased the Oasis.
Coonamble, about an hour’s drive east of Walgett, also had a segregated cinema. While one group of students had been working with the Walgett community, another had been in Coonamble.
One weekend, as I was driving through Coonamble on my way back from Walgett, a familiar figure waved me down. It was Owen Westcott. He had been involved in a demonstration the night before and had been beaten up by local racists. Bruised and bloody, he had been reluctantly treated by a local doctor.
But Owen’s condition was healthy compared to his beloved car – a Citroen 2CV. Some locals had taken to it with an axe. They broke every piece of glass, and stove in the sump.
He didn’t want to put it on the train in Coonamble, fearing further damage there. We agreed that I would tow him thirty miles to Gulargambone
By this time we had been recognised, and we were being threatened by a group in an FJ Holden. We went to the police for protection, only to be told to piss off. Troublemakers like us had no rights.
We decided to risk it and drive to Gulargambone. With my VW towing the damaged Citroen we couldn’t go very fast, and a few miles down the lonely road we saw an FJ Holden rapidly approaching in the rear mirror. This, we thought, was it. Suddenly, the Holden changed course and turned off to the right. We were safe. Behind it was a police car. The Coonamble cops weren’t nice, but Coonamble was not Mississippi.
Out of bounds
Bowraville, a small town in a dairy district about 300 miles north of Sydney had a segregated cinema and a segregated hotel. There were many efforts to break the colour bar – one of which landed a couple of us in a farcical court appearance.
One night, when we were challenging the colour bar in the Royal Hotel, the publican claimed there was no colour bar. The photograph at left shows some of the students outside the Royal Hotel.
He said he was refusing service to Aborigines there because they were drunk. Before breathalysers, this was a hard thing to disprove. We decided to visit the Aboriginal Reserve, on the fringe of the town, to find some Aborigines who had not had a drink all day.
Leaving a group behind at the hotel, Sue-Anne Loftus and I drove to the reserve. Not long after we were invited in the police arrived and arrested us. The charge was that we had entered the Aboriginal Reserve without police permission. It did not matter that the residents had invited us in – under the law Aborigines living on reserves could not invite any non-resident, even a family member, into their home.
By the mid 1960s, this law was rarely enforced, but selective enforcement could be used to intimidate anyone perceived to be a trouble maker. We were due to appear in court in about two months.
My employers were not impressed. I was told a conviction would lead to my dismissal. Journalists working for Four Corners were not meant to have opinions – at least not to express them publicly.
While this was a relatively minor, and technical offence, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, saw it as an attempt to intimidate legitimate protest. Trevor Martin, a Sydney barrister, was briefed to represent us.
He later became a judge. While his performance in a Bowraville Court of Petty Sessions was entertaining, I suspect it had little to do with his elevation to the bench.
The police evidence began in Gilbert and Sullivan style. “While proceeding in a northerly direction I observed the accused in the Aboriginal Reserve ….” Trevor Martin objected. The reserve, he said, was defined in an Act of Parliament. Had the officer read the Act? How did he know that the area where the accused were standing was the area defined in the Act? Had the police employed a qualified surveyor to determine the location of the reserve?
No. So the recitation began again from the beginning. “While proceeding in a northerly direction I observed the accused in what I believed to be the Aboriginal reserve talking to two Aborigines ……” Another objection. Aborigines are defined in the Act. Did the officer know the two people in question.? Did he know their parents?
No. Back to the beginning. “While proceeding in a northerly direction I observed the accused in what I believed to be the Aboriginal Reserve talking to what I believed to be dark coloured people”.
The Magistrate accepted a defence submission that there was no case to answer.
I was the only journalist present when the bus was run off the road in Walgett. I had the recordings. I had a scoop. But the ABC didn’t want to know. They would suppress the recordings for thirteen years.
When the Freedom Ride began I had been in the ABC less than a year. After some training in radio I was working as the researcher for Four Corners but still classified as a trainee. I asked to cover the Freedom Ride for radio and was refused. However I was due three days off and I asked if I could take this leave, plus two days on ABC time. This was agreed – I had five days off, plus the weekends, giving me nine days. The Freedom Ride was to take fourteen.
Shortly after the bus was run off the road in Walgett, I telephoned the ABC newsroom with the story. They were not interested in taking any details from me, but did telephone the police and ran a brief report quoting the police. With ABC News seemingly uninterested, I contacted the ABC Talks Department where I worked. With little enthusiasm, they agreed to take a two-minute report from me in Moree, containing actuality recordings of the Walgett events. No one explained the lack of enthusiasm for what was to be front-page news for the next ten days, but I finally twigged when my report was broadcast that night. I was described as “one of the students” – the ABC didn’t want to own me.
There was a real conflict of interest issue here. I was an ABC journalist and I had gone on the Freedom Ride, albeit mostly in my own time, with ABC agreement. I was also a part-time student, and a member of SAFA. I held the biased view that it was wrong to discriminate against people on the basis of race. My real crime, of course, was not being biased against racism but making my view public. No one in the ABC wanted to face the issue, and find a way of dealing with it. It was felt best to sweep it under the carpet.
Meanwhile, the other major news outlets leapt at the story. The Daily Mirror sent reporter Gerry Stone and photographer Neville Whitmarsh to join the bus. Channel 7 sent Peter Westaway and a film crew. The Sydney Morning Herald reporter who joined the bus won a Walkley Award for his coverage. The ABC ignored me. While apparently dissatisfied with my objectivity and professionalism, they did not bother to send a more experienced and more ‘objective’ reporter.
With my leave running out, I asked to allowed to remain until the conclusion of the bus trip. Absolutely not. I was told to report for duty at 0900 Monday morning without fail. I left the bus at Moree and caught the train back to Sydney.
I returned with a box full of tape recordings. I asked to be allowed to make them into a radio documentary. No, you’re too inexperienced, I was told. I read this as code for “you’re biased”. OK, I said, let someone more experience make a program from the raw material I have collected. No, it’s old news now, was the reply.
In my own time, I did compile the tapes, more as a chronology of the Freedom Ride than as a radio documentary in the normal sense. The program sat in my bottom drawer for thirteen years. Years later, when it was no longer politics, but safely into the category of history, it would become one of the ABC’s most often repeated radio programs.
By 1978 I was head of the Talks Department in Melbourne. One day one of the broadcasters came to me with a problem. Several items had fallen out of her program at the last minute, and she needed help in finding replacement material. I asked her what she still had in the program. She said she was due to record an Aboriginal activist visiting Melbourne, but that was her only item. We discussed some other story ideas, and then I mentioned my Freedom Ride program. I said that an excerpt from that program might go well with her interview. I gave her a copy and left it up to her.
Impact of Freedom Ride on Aboriginal witnesses
When she interviewed the Aboriginal activist, she played an excerpt from the program to him. He said that the Freedom Ride was the event that changed his life. She was speaking to Lyall Munro Jr from Moree. Thirteen years earlier, aged 14, he had been one of the children taken to swim in the Moree baths.
Munro explained the impact of the Freedom Ride on him and his community. They had always realised the injustice of their treatment, but that was all they had ever known. That was just the way things were. You can’t fight City Hall. Then the students came, and the ban was lifted. City Hall, in the person of the Moree Council, had backed down. When the students left, the ban came back. But it was too late. Lyall Munro and his friends had seen that change was possible. Now they would lead the struggle. A spark had started a bushfire.
Author: Darce Cassidy
See also Reflections on the Freedom Ride