First Nations readers are advised this article may contain the names and voices of First Nations people now resting in the Dreaming.
I was asked to write an article about Australia’s Freedom Ride which was led by Kalkadoon and Arrente man Charles Perkins back in 1965. As I did my research, I noticed that everyone who had written articles before had basically talked about the timeline, and what happened along the way. I wanted to cover something different, and rather than talk about the impact it had on white Australians at the time, I wanted to talk about the legacy that Charles Perkins left behind, and the impact that the Freedom Ride had on people from our own community.
Australia's civil rights movement began in the 1930s with the Australian Aborigines Conference in 1938 and their petition to have a Day of Mourning on January 26, 1938. And then in the 1940s with the Pilbara Strike lasting from 1946 until 1949. But it wasn’t until the 1960s, and the Freedom Ride in 1965, that the Federal Government was forced to take notice of issues relating to First Nations people in Australia.
The United States Freedom Ride of 1961, which was led by Freedom Fighters such as John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette, and supported by Martin Luther King Jnr, set the stage for First Nations people to follow. Although Black people in America were fighting against segregation on buses, First Nations people in Australia were fighting for equality.
Likened to other Freedom Fighters such as Martin Luther King Jnr and Nelson Mandela, Charles Perkins led the Freedom Ride in 1965 with a group of students from the University of Sydney. They travelled through several regional towns in New South Wales, highlighting racial discrimination and the rights of First Nations people. They drew attention to regional towns who had rules in place segregating First Nations people by not allowing access to public places, such as swimming pools, RSLs and hotels.
I spoke with prominent First Nations Elders and wanted to find out what they thought about the impact of the Freedom Rides and what legacy Charles Perkins left behind. In a film interview in 1998, Charles Perkins spoke about the Freedom Ride and what he wanted to achieve at the time.
The whole Freedom Ride is not so much for the white people, in my mind. My deeper objective was for people to realise, hey listen, second class is not good enough, you know… Sitting down the front at picture theatres, and not being able to sit in a restaurant, because no one will allow you as an Aborigine person to sit in a restaurant. That’s not on, and you know, the timing was right. If I didn’t do it, somebody else would’ve done it, and other people have done it in a different way.
Gumbaynggirr activist, historian, writer and actor, Dr Gary Foley, said the ideology behind the 1965 Freedom Ride was inspirational and gave him and many others the ability to imagine a better future for all First Nations people.
The Freedom Ride was an important moment in history because it planted a seed in the minds of my generation who were around 15-years-old at the time. It planted a seed that made us imagine the possibility of a life better than our parents’ generation had to endure under the yoke of the NSW apartheid system. It also made us aware that if we were to achieve that goal of freedom then we would have to fight for it. We learned that lesson well.
Trawlwoolway and Pinterrairer man, lawyer and political activist, Michael Mansell, said that Charles Perkins inspired him to become a lawyer. He also said that he wanted to use the white man’s law to fight for the rights of First Nations people. Michael had just returned from their traditional mutton bird hunting season, and is currently the legal manager of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, and secretary of the Aboriginal Provisional Government.
Qawanji Vincent Brady, Kuku Yalanji and senior Law man, spoke about how the Freedom Ride made Australia stand up and listen. He said that never before had anything like this happened, where the racist attitudes of country town folk were put on display for the rest of Australians to see. And the best part about it was that it was televised live. He said Charles Perkins was a man who was ahead of his time.
Wiradjuri woman, activist, actress, and tireless campaigner for the rights of First Nations people, Bronwyn Penrith, said that although the Freedom Ride highlighted overt and systemic racism in our country, it was a game changer in terms of justice and truth-telling for First Nations people.
The impact was it made us feel like we could do something to make change. Get things done. It was asking Australia to consider truth-telling, decolonisation, and acknowledging truth and justice. It was absolutely positive and a game changer for Aboriginal people. It put the spotlight on racism not only in the country, but Australia-wide. Unfortunately overt racism has gone underground, and is not as visible as systemic racism relating to race relations in Australia.
Elder, actor, musician and legendary performer, Uncle Jack Charles – who is now resting in the Dreaming – was in jail in Naarm (Melbourne) at the time of the Freedom Ride. He said that, “watching Charles Perkins on TV led me to reflect on how I was refused entry to the local bathhouses when I went to Swan Hill in 1961.”
Cheryl Buchanan also talked about the Freedom Ride. She talked about how we needed the whole country's support to create change, and that the Freedom Ride was especially important because it brought Black and White people together for a common goal.
From all the Elders I spoke with, everyone said the Freedom Ride made mainstream Australia stand up and take notice of the injustices perpetrated against First Nations people. Shortly after the Freedom Ride, the next big thing relating to race relations was the 1967 Referendum.
Although I wasn’t born when the Freedom Ride happened in Australia (I was born a few years later), I have had several family members who were very vocal and spoke out about the injustices that First Nations people in our country were dealing with back then, and are still dealing with today. Things haven’t really changed that much since those early days of our civil rights movement. Our people are still living in poor conditions in a country as rich as Australia. First Nations people who live in remote and rural communities don’t have the basic essentials that people living in capital cities and towns take for granted.
Too many of our community homes have no electricity or running water – hot or cold – or septic systems that work. Some people are living in homes that should be condemned. Most remote communities don’t have a high school, and children have to move away from their community to get a decent education. First Nations people have the highest rate of incarceration, mostly due to petty crime, fines and racial profiling. This is our reality today, even though our Elders were fighting for land rights, justice, equality, equal wages, better health conditions, education, and the list goes on. It's clear the Freedom Ride had a huge impact. But we still have work to do."
Maybe this quote from the late Oodjeroo Nunuccal is something we all should consider. We can all aspire to these words and use them to reimagine a united country. For everyone to live in harmony with all the benefits this great country has to offer us.
If Black Australians are to become masters of their own destiny, white Australians must recognise them as being capable of formulating their own policy of advancement. Prior to the white invasion of this country, history tells us that black Australians had a high standard of moral and social pattern behaviours.