Looking back: Ann Curthoys on the Freedom Rides

A student activist reflects on an iconic moment in USyd's history.

A photo of Ann Curthoys from her student days fascinates me. She is standing next to a bus with her fellow students and comrades from ‘Student Action for Aborigines’ (SAFA). It is not a particularly eventful moment to capture, yet the innocuous nature of this snapshot is exactly what draws me in. This is the first glance I have of esteemed activists as ‘normal’ students. The photo is from 1965, but it is before the Freedom Rides gain traction and notoriety around the world. It dawns on me these renowned activists were students, and many of them were the age I am now. Interested in what has changed and what remains the same, I decide to speak with Ann.

Ann’s upbringing was undeniably central to the activist spirit she brought to USyd’s campus. Both her parents “were members of the Communist Party of Australia” and she recalls activists “often visiting [her] house”. As a child, she attended Eureka Camps where she socialised with other communist offspring. She would later join the Eureka Youth League, a political organisation. Although she grew up in Newcastle, Ann was able to “maintain connections to Sydney” through these youth political groups. In 1963 she eventually decided to study at the University of Sydney. She chuckles as she recalls being motivated by a desire “not to attend a university where [her] father was an academic”.

Freedom Riders

Surprisingly, Ann found campus culture conservative and apathetic: “[There were] posters that said S.A.G—‘Student Apathy Group’. Students found that quite funny.” Having heard of the golden age of activism in the 70s, I always imagined that the University of Sydney had a strong radical ethos through the ‘60s and ‘70s. However, as Ann explains, attitudes only shifted to the left in the later stages of her undergraduate studies. “‘65/’66 is when it really starts to change in terms of a more radical politics and even a bit after that as well.”

Although she never aspired to enter parliamentary politics, Ann took after her parents by becoming a member of the communist party in the early stages of her degree. However, after being in the party for less than two years, she decided to leave “over issues of democracy…influenced by the rise of the new left.” As she continued her degree, Ann became part of other interesting activist movements. In those days, activist meetings were “quite formal”, with “presidents and secretaries”. This is contrary to the proudly ‘functional degenerate’ branding of modern campus activists. She recalls the distinctive influence of the Vietnam War in “shifting students to the left” as they began engaging in “the burning of draft cards, anti-conscription demonstrations… and more expressive politics”.

Ann’s most remembered activism was probably the Freedom Rides of 1965, an event still discussed by students. The Freedom Riders formed as a result of rising student awareness of domestic indigenous issues, inspired in part by the civil rights movement in the United States. Whilst a lot of organising occured when Ann went back home to Newcastle over the summer, she was an active participant in the rides, recording the events in diary accounts that would later form an important historical record of the students’ activism. “It was quite a funny diary. There was no privacy in the Freedom Rides. We were usually sleeping in a bus or church halls, so I wrote it in a way where it wouldn’t matter if someone found it.”

Ann laughs as she says “looking back, I’m glad it was written that way… because others can read it without me feeling too embarrassed.” For her, one of the major challenges was “going into the unknown. I didn’t really understand the politics of country towns…what people really objected to was an aboriginal man being a leader with white students.” Ann puts it well when she suggests that “our existence was an assault on their understanding” of the world. Additionally, she recalls “attacks on the women involved, sort of sexual innuendos…we learnt very quickly, the notion of equal treatment was very challenging to people.”

There were also positive aspects to the rides. “It was a big learning experience, there was no doubt about that.” She found “engagement with Aboriginal people in the different towns, particularly Moree and Walgut” to be rewarding, as the students were able to work with local indigenous leadership. “Charles Perkins being the leader was also really striking to people, we learnt a lot seeing that dynamic play out…what an effective speaker he was.” When asked about overcoming their own doubts over whether they’d be able to effect change, Ann tells me “we were convinced we would win in the long run. But it would be a long run, and it was quite a long run.” There was also a sense that a general movement was being built, which made it easier for students to remain optimistic. Importantly, Ann qualifies that “in terms of combating racism, I don’t know…”

Curious about student life beyond activism, I ask Ann about the campus sub-cultures during her time. One notable feature was the commemoration day celebrations, which I have often found referenced in old editions of Honi but never quite understood. “It was quite a big thing,” she says, “from the name I presume it was celebrating the beginning of the university…it did have a parade through town-when I think about it, that’s quite extraordinary.” I find there to be something quite charming about the image of student larrikins parading through town—a wholesome but quirky university tradition that reflects a sense of affinity between students. When Ann compares those days to her most recent visits to the university she suggests “there’s been a huge change…the growth in the size of it has made it difficult to have a sense of it as a single institution.” Whilst there were divisions on campus during her own time, she seems to feel as if the university’s expansion has caused a greater disconnect between students. Of course, the other forthcoming difference was the changes in the diversity of campus. When reminiscing on her particularly meaningful friendships with fellow female students, Ann remembers the bonds formed over “shared experiences of going through the challenges of university life and developing careers”.

I decide to conclude by asking Ann what her fondest memory of campus life is. “Thats a tough one”, she says as she reflects on her numerous recollections from university days. “I really find it hard to answer. In some ways it was enjoying the academic side of things. In some ways it’s just making good friends…but it has to be the student engagement. It was important looking back.” As our interview reaches its end, I start wondering what my reflections on campus will be like in 50 years time. I sincerely hope I can look back at my time at USyd as fondly as Ann seems to.

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