In 1965, 29 University of Sydney students, led by Charles Perkins, set off on a road trip around NSW. Their aim was to expose and report on the inequalities and segregation suffered by Indigenous Australia. Perkins was the University of Sydney’s first Indigenous student, and on the trip aimed to end the segregation in towns that forced Aboriginal people to sit on ground in cinemas, to be served through back windows in pubs, to be treated in separate hospital wards—or not at all. In 2015, in a co-ordinated effort led by the University and SRC president Kyol Blakeney, the Ride’s 50th anniversary was honoured by re-enacting the trip. On February 18th, 27 students from the University of Sydney, along with staff, media and some of the original Freedom Riders set off on a five day trip, retracing the original Ride’s route, stopping in Dubbo, Walgett, Moree, Bowraville and Kempsey.
130 students applied for the 30 spots. Blakeney and Co-Vice President of the SRC Madison McIvor chose students for their passion and their willingness to listen and to learn. Things were a little bit different to what they were fifty years ago. In 2015, students attended community forums, Q&A sessions and nightly free, community concerts, featuring performances from Paul Kelly and Troy Cassar-Daley. The 2015 bus was equipped with air conditioning and the trip was funded generously by the University; we received warm welcomes from the communities that we visited. In 1965, the Riders were met with violence wherever they wenr, were run off roads and held meetings in dingey pubs; sleeping on the bus or in community halls.
In Honi’s 1965 original coverage of the event, it was reported that “Perkins himself was in fact denied entrance to the Moree baths after he admitted that he was part Aboriginal”. Today, things have changed but they are still not right. Entry to the Moree Artesian Aquatic Centre is expensive for disadvantaged members of the Moree community, Aboriginal or otherwise—$8 for an adult and $6 for a child (entry to the Sydney Olympic Aquatic Park is $7). That’s $34 for a family of five. We were met with stories of covert racism, unemployment, incarceration, short life expectancy, sickness, drug addiction and lives without options. Formalised segregation may be gone, but the Indigenous community is still suffering.
The 2015 Ride’s intent was to honour the 1965 Rides—both by celebrating what they did, but also by once again endeavouring to report on the reality of rural Indigenous Australia and the inequalities that still exist and their still very real struggle. In this spirit, Honi has tried to tell as many stories from the trail as space permits and where possible in the words of people themselves. These are all stories that still need to be heard.