A history of student engagement in Aboriginal rights

Students have a rich history of engagement with the continued struggle for Aboriginal rights stretching back over 50 years.

Students at Bowraville, February 1965. Students at Bowraville, February 1965. Image: courtesy of Tribune Archive.

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When most people think of student activism now, they think of students campaigning around fee deregulation or campus issues that directly affect students. Student environmentalism or student protests in support of refugees might get a mention. However, students also have a rich history of engagement with the continued struggle for Aboriginal rights stretching back over 50 years. This began in the 1960s as the very first generation of Aboriginal people were able to attend university — about 100 years after the founding of the University of Sydney, a testament to the persistence of racism in Australian society then and now.


From the 1960s, as a result of new legal requirements to pay Aboriginal people award wages, many rural employers who had previously relied on Aboriginal workers sacked them. At the same time, many government-run Aboriginal reserves were closed down. This forced large numbers of Aboriginal people from rural NSW into urban Sydney in search of work and accommodation. As a result, Redfern’s Aboriginal population exploded from 2000 in 1960 to 38,000 in 1968. Overcrowding, poverty, health issues and police harassment were serious concerns and dissatisfaction at substandard living conditions underpinned a surge of Aboriginal political activity in the area. As this radical community was so close to USyd, it was natural that they would develop relationships with student activists.

Students Protesting
Students protesting at Walgett RSL. Image: courtesy of Pat Healy.

The 1960s

Widely seen as a turning point for race relations in Australia, the 1965 ‘Freedom Ride’ saw USyd students travel to rural NSW in an attempt to expose and challenge discrimination against Aboriginal people. Led by Aboriginal activists Charlie Perkins and Gary Williams, the first Aboriginal people to attend the University, about 30 students from a group called Student Action For Aborigines (SAFA) raised the funds for the trip themselves and succeeded in bringing the overt racism of country towns into suburban living rooms. The trip drew on Perkins’ and Williams’ connections with Aboriginal communities around the state, established through the Tranby Aboriginal college, but also on much deeper networks of Aboriginal activists who had been organising around the state since the 1920s. The students supported these activists and their communities in demonstrations, and attempted to avoid behaving as outsider trouble makers.

In Walgett, Perkins and Williams supported local Aboriginal people protesting the local RSL’s policy of excluding Aboriginal war veterans from the club; one student held a sign reading “Good Enough For Tobruk — Why Not Walgett RSL?”. In Moree, they challenged local council laws which banned Aboriginal people from swimming in the public pool or attending the cinema. They found widespread discrimination in employment, education, housing, health and services and brought these issues to mainstream attention. In many places the students faced intense hostility from local racists, with a Walgett man attempting to run them off the road and a large angry mob descending on the students at a demonstration in Moree.

Another student organisation at this time was Abschol, originally established to raise funds in the hope of supporting Aboriginal students to attend university. Over time the group also became involved in political protests, supporting FCAATSI’s (Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders) successful 1967 referendum campaign, which gave Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people national civil rights.

Gary Williams and Charles Perkins at Sydney University in 1963 (photograph courtesy Gary Williams)
Gary Williams and Charles Perkins at the University of Sydney in 1963. Image: courtesy of Gary Williams.

The 1970s

As Aboriginal activists became increasingly frustrated when progress failed to materialise following the referendum, Abschol became a hub of student support for the nascent Black Power movement. In 1972, Students raised $4500 (about $27,000 in today’s money) to support the Aboriginal Medical Service, established by Black Power activists in Redfern. The Black Power movement succeeded in establishing Aboriginal-run community organisations all over the country, and ultimately forced a recognition of Aboriginal land rights and the handing back of many areas back to their traditional owners.

Abschol also helped organise the 1972 Black Moratorium march, in which 6000 people demanded the Federal Government reverse its opposition to land rights legislation and grant the demands of remote communities like the Gurindji and the Yolngu to their land. The land rights movement was also concerned with securing Aboriginal ownership over Aboriginal reserve lands in NSW, as well as guaranteeing their residents access to housing, employment and services. Students at USyd declared a student strike for the Moratorium, and more than 2000 students rallied at the campus before joining the main demonstration in Redfern.

The same year, students at ANU helped to raise funds and organise legal support for Black Power activists who had established an Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra. Despite large-scale police violence directed at the Embassy, it became one of the most iconic protests in Australian history and remains on the lawns today as a highly symbolic challenge to White Australia.

Students were also involved in the establishment of the Aboriginal Legal Service, which began as a grassroots initiative to record the names of Aboriginal people arbitrarily arrested by police and to provide them with legal support. These are now large organisations which provide services to Aboriginal people all over the country, but they started as grassroots community initiatives supported by students, trade unionists and other progressive groups.

Recent years of activism

In recent years, USyd students have carried on this tradition of support for Aboriginal rights movements. In 2014 and 2015, they supported the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy’s successful campaign for affordable Aboriginal housing on Redfern’s Block by raising funds, collecting and donating materials, volunteering, and mobilising students to attend demonstrations. They have also organised students to attend marches protesting against the proposed closure of hundreds of remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia and the abuse of Aboriginal teenagers in juvenile detention, as well as in support of local families whose relatives have died in police custody. Students have raised money for ‘Hey, Sis! We’ve Got Your Back’, an Aboriginal network focussed around challenging domestic and sexual violence, and have helped support the Tiwi Island Sistergirls to attend this year’s Mardi Gras. Another area of student activity has been in support of Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR), an Aboriginal group challenging the ongoing removals of Aboriginal children from their families — which they argue are higher than during the Stolen Generations — whom students have supported through fundraising and organising public forums.

As in the past, students are continuing to bring proud Aboriginal political voices onto campus as well as to get students engaged in the world outside the university. Our work is ongoing and sometimes difficult, but sustained by a long and impressive history.