Beyond the Freedom Rides

Students Support Aboriginal Communities on the community networks that facilitate activism around the country. Photo: Freya Newman

The February 1965 “Freedom Ride” is rightly remembered as a crucial moment in the history of relations between Aboriginal people and colonial Australia. Aboriginal students Charlie Perkins and Gary Williams led a group called Student Action For Aborigines (SAFA) in a trip to a number of rural towns in NSW, exposing segregation and discrimination against Aboriginal people and the appalling conditions many communities were forced to live in on missions, reserves and fringe camps. The controversy and publicity this trip generated underpinned a new national conversation about justice for Aboriginal people, and played a role in successes such as the 1967 Referendum and self-determination policies.

What is often forgotten are the activist networks which made the “Freedom Ride” possible. The trip was not a singular, spontaneous event – rather, it built on generations of political organising in rural Aboriginal communities all around the state. Heather Goodall traces these networks in her history of Aboriginal activism, Invasion to Embassy. Organisers from the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), initially established in 1937 to organise the inaugural “Invasion Day” protest the following year, were heavily involved in the initial planning for the Ride. The Aboriginal communities in NSW visited by SAFA in 1965 were communities in which the APA had been organising for decades. The APA supported these communities in opposing the segregation of schools and hospitals, exclusion from parks, pubs and swimming pools, the lack of employment opportunities for Aboriginal people in rural areas, and oppressive conditions on government-managed reserves. Aboriginal organisers Bert Groves and Pearl Gibbs met with Perkins to ensure that there was local community support for SAFA’s activities.

The students’ solidarity with Aboriginal communities around NSW also continued long after 1965. Delegations from SAFA, along with APA organisers, Communist Party members and Aboriginal unionists like Chicka Dixon, continued to support the attempts of community members to challenge segregation in their towns. For example, four students and two Murri women in Walgett in August 1965 entered the “whites only” section of the local cinema, and were dragged out and arrested by police after refusing to leave. Students were also heavily involved in supporting the Land Rights marches in the 1970s.

History shows that student support for Aboriginal justice campaigns matters. This is true not only of rural towns in the 1960s, but also of the present-day and closer to home. The Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established nearly two years ago by Aunty Jenny Munro to demand affordable housing for Aboriginal people on the historic Block in the face of a commercial development, which included student housing. Students from Sydney University supported the Embassy in large numbers, donating funds from student organisations, and helping with the dayto-day running of the Embassy. The Embassy was ultimately successful in securing the construction of affordable housing for Aboriginal people in the opening phase of the Block’s redevelopment.

Students have also supported the protest movement against the forced closure of remote Aboriginal communities in WA, stood with Gomeroi/ Gamilaraay people in north-western NSW opposing the expansion of CSG mining on their country, and supported protests against Aboriginal deaths in custody, the Northern Territory Intervention and the forced removal of Aboriginal children.

Last year, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students involved in these struggles formed Students Support Aboriginal Communities (SSAC), a space to organise student solidarity with Aboriginal campaigns. We see the contemporary injustices experienced by Aboriginal people as rooted in a history of colonial oppression, and seek to support Aboriginal activism. Our non-Aboriginal members feel that as the descendants of settlers, we have a responsibility to support Aboriginal people in their struggle for justice.

The first step towards justice is non-Aboriginal people undergoing a process of self-education. We acknowledge that the history we have learned through government education is inadequate, and seek to learn from Aboriginal people the real history of this country. We acknowledge that all non-Aboriginal people, especially white people, have internalised deeply racist conceptions of Aboriginality, and we are committed to overcoming these harmful misunderstandings.

We currently organise film screenings and reading groups in order to challenge non-Aboriginal misunderstandings of history. SSAC also has plans to start up a blog, undertake more road trips to visit rural Aboriginal communities, and consistently hold fundraisers to support grassroots Indigenous activism.