Fiftieth anniversary re-enactment of freedom ride goes north to fight discrimination against Aboriginal people

An original member of Australia’s freedom rides is farewelled before boarding the bus for the 50th anniversary of the original ride promoting social justice for Aboriginal people. Photo: Peter Rae Original freedom riders ready to go. Photo: Peter Rae
Nanjing Night Net

Freedom ride committee, 1965 – John Powles, Charles Perkins, Patricia Healy and Jim Spigelman.

Anniversary a celebration and reminder

When the first freedom ride left Sydney University to fight discrimination against Aboriginal people in 1965, it did so without Wednesday morning’s fanfare, without the university’s support and without official speeches marking the occasion.

In those days, there were no Aboriginal flags fluttering above the quadrangle, they hadn’t even been designed yet, and there were only two Aboriginal students on campus.

On Wednesday morning, the 50th anniversary re-enactment left in a flurry, with two buses carrying media, and some of the original freedom riders including Eileen Perkins, the widow of the late Aboriginal politician and activist, who initiated the original ride with Bill Ford, who had come back from the freedom rides in the United States inspired to bring about change in Australia.

With a new generation of 29 students on board along with some of the original freedom riders, the four-day bus trip will retrace much of the original route to northwest NSW, including Dubbo, Walgett, Kempsey and Moree. It will hold community forums, meetings and concerts.

As well as this week’s re-enactment of the original ride, Sydney University will mark the 50th anniversary of the freedom rides – a group of 30 students who took direct action to highlight discrimination against Aboriginal people in swimming pools, clubs and restaurants across NSW – with a new scholarship fund and a promise to lift the number of Indigenous students 65 per cent by 2016.

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“When the (original) freedom riders set out, the university wasn’t exactly the most supportive institution,” said Shane Houston, the deputy vice-chancellor, indigenous strategy and services. The1965 bus trip had been inspired by the American freedom riders in the deep south. The Australian students headed to the deep north, with the goal to “expose segregation and the shameful treatment of Aboriginal people.” The original freedom ride was led by Sydney University student Charles Perkins, who was to make history the year after the freedom rides by becoming the first Aboriginal man to graduate from an Australian university.

“The freedom ride really was a remarkable contribution to social consciousness in Australia,” said Mr Houston. It had brought Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues into the public gaze over a sustained period of time for the first time ever, he said.

“Up until that time, it was out of sight, out of mind largely (for Aboriginal people).”

One of the original riders who will join the 2015 bus ride in Moree this week is Jim Spigelman, now ABC chairman and a former chief justice of the NSW Supreme Court. He was 19 and a student at Sydney University when he left to fight racial discrimination that he knew firsthand from his parents and brother’s experience as Jews at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

This week he recalled it was the first time that Aboriginal issues had ever been on the front page for a continuous period.

What the students uncovered across rural NSW was a shock to them and to many Australians. “We did not know before we got there that a number of local government councils had formal resolutions on the books prohibiting Indigenous Australians from swimming in the pools. We had heard that there were some kinds of discrimination in one or two places, but we didn’t know it was as formal as that. And a number of Australians didn’t know they (these racial bars) existed, ” Mr Spigelman said.

Mr Houston said the new freedom ride scholarship fund had been designed as a flexible fund that could be used to support and retain Indigenous students. In addition, the university had implemented a range of new policies to address institutional racism.

“A lot of people don’t understand that there are different forms of racism. Everyone gets the blatant acts,” he said, citing a time when he was banned from the front bar of a pub in Burke and told to ring a cowbell from out the back to order. “But what they don’t often get is the institutional racism, often unintentional, where we construct a way of behaving or a set of rules that has an unintended consequence that it disadvantages a group of people.”

To address this less obvious racism, the university had made thinking about and serving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders part of its core business affecting every part of the university. It was reviewing how it taught every subject, and it had made cultural competency a priority for every part of the university.

“If the Uni of Sydney could do what it is doing, there is no excuse for any other university. “

There are currently 383 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at the university. And he said the goal of increasing that number to 600 was ambitious but the university was hungry for change.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.