The Institute Times

The Freedom Ride

Students from the Student Action for Aborigines group in Walgett, NSW 1967
Photograph reproduced with permission of Wendy Watson-Ekstein (nee Golding) and supplied by Ann Curthoys.

In 1965 a group of students from the University of Sydney known as the Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA) set off in a bus across New South Wales to create awareness of the poor quality of health, education and housing for Aboriginal people, challenge the segregation that was happening in rural areas, and encourage Aborigines to take a stand against segregation and racism. Charles Perkins, an Aboriginal student of the University, was elected president of the SAFA and played a key role in the ride.

The idea started with the anti-segregation rallies that had been taking place in America the years prior. This sparked the idea to have a look at our own country; one that many city dwellers believed didn’t have the same level of racism as America.

The students travelled across New South Wales visiting country towns such as Walgett, Gulargambone, Kempsey, Bowraville and Moree. In many towns they were not greeted warmly with many white members of the community arguing with the students and at times violently attacking them. In every town the students visited, they couldn’t believe how poorly the Aboriginal people were treated. Every town was well and truly segregated with Aboriginal people being refused service in bars, shops and hotels. Not only this, but they also weren’t allowed to use the local swimming pools and were sat separately on buses and in theatres. The students challenged this segregation and fought for the rights of the Aboriginals. One of the most memorable events took place at Moree baths where Perkins and his team fought for the Aboriginal people to be allowed to swim in the pool with the white community members. This caused outrage amongst the community who firmly believed that segregation was necessary as they didn’t want their swimming water contaminated.

As well as their efforts in the towns themselves, the SAFA made an effort to have the entire journey covered by the news networks. This media platform could showcase how Aborigines were being treated in rural areas to the country’s more influential people and help banish the ignorance that was a “Racism-free Australia”. The stories didn’t go unnoticed and people started to protest and take a stand immediately after the stories were released.

The event was covered by media internationally, appearing in The New York Times. This journey became known as The Freedom Ride, and was a major stepping stone towards better treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia. Without the Freedom Ride, breaking down of segregation and recognition of Aboriginal rights might not have progressed as rapidly as it did in the years following.