Freedom Rides

Background information

Reasons for Freedom Ride

Inspired by the Freedom Riders of the American Civil Rights Movement in 1961 and Martin Luther King Jr., students from University of Sydney banded together to form a group called the Student Action for Aboriginals, and traveled to various New South Wales country towns on what some considered as a fact-finding mission. This was dubbed the "freedom rides" and occured between 1964 and 1965. Led by Charles Perkins, then a third year student at Sydney University, they rode as an outcry to raise Australian awareness of the discrimination that existed in Australian society towards the indigenous populations, just as the Americans had done to challenge social laws promoting segregation of African-Americans three years before. Discrimination occurred in all areas of Australian society, from the community to the workplace, and could even be found in the Australian constitution.

In the highest law of Australia, constitution law, discrimination and racial segregation can be found.

  • Section 57 stated that the Commonwealth government of Australia could create for all people of

Australia other than the Aboriginal race.

  • Section 127 excluded Aborigines from the census

This showed that although Aborigines lived in Australia, they were not treated as Australian citizens, rather as, in Charles Perkins' words, "second class" citizens.The responsibility of governing Aborigines were given to the state governments, which meant that Aborigines in some state enjoyed rights that Aborigines in other states might not. Aborigines were often denied pensions and maternity benefits, as well as losing the ability to vote.

A social barrier existed between the white and indigenous populations. Aborigines were constantly discriminated against, banned from public pools, libraries, etc. and were forced to live in black areas in dilapidated living quarters. They were constantly abused, and called names such as "nigger" and "scum of the earth". Being associated with a "nigger' was considered socially unacceptable, and therefore Aborigines were usually alienated from society. This social barrier was the very thing that the Freedom Riders tried to break down.


The Australian Freedom Riders, led by Charles Perkins, had three aims. Through their rides, they hope to to draw public attention to the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing, and thereby attract public pressure on governments to alleviate these conditions. Also, they hoped to expose and lessen the social barrier which existed between the indigenous and white populations. Lastly, they hope to encourage and support the indigenous population to take an active role in resisting public discrimination.

The journey


Major dates in the journey:

  • 12th February 1965 - The Freedom Rides set off from Sydney at night on the 12th of February 1965 with a bus load of students 30, primarily from Sydney University.
  • 13th February 1965 - First stop of the bus tour was Wellington. No protests were carried out, but surveys were carried out which affirmed views on Aboriginal discrimination. Aboriginal and white living standards were also taken note of.
  • 14th February 1965 - Again, no protests were carried out and surveys were taken of living standards, etc. The results showed the overt discrimination shown against Aborigines, and concluded that the local population were actively segregating Aborigines and denying them access to rights and facilities.
  • 15th-16th February 1965 - Freedom Riders reach Walgett. First demonstration was carried out here, with the barricading of the RSL club. Charles Perkins was denied usage of the RSL bar, and was rebuffed on basis of his race. The Riders paraded in front of the club with placards and signs. The locals retaliated through insulting the Freedom Riders, with phrases such as
  • 16th-17th February 1965 - Freedom Riders reach Moree. Charles Perkins brought a group of indigenous children with him to the local pool, in which Aborigines have been banned since its creation 40 years ago.This caused uproar among the white citizens of Moree and the next day the Freedom Riders was confronted by 500 locals who verbally abused and threw objects such as eggs. Threats of physical violence was also issued. Riders were escorted out by police.

By this time, the Freedom Riders actions at the towns of Moree and Walgett had attracted huge public and media attention, both national and internationally and a national debate was sparked. The Freedom Fighters also stopped at a range of other country towns including Lismore, Bowraville and Kempsey on their way back to Sydney, but their actions there were not as significant as those in Moree and Walgett.


The original Freedom Riders included:
Charles Perkins, Gary Williams, Aidan Foy, Alan Outhred, Alex Mills, Ann Curthoys, Barry Corr, Beth Hansen, Bob Gallagher, Brian Aarons, Chris Page, Colin Bradford, Darce Cassidy, David Pepper, Derek Molloy, Hall Greenland, Helen Gray, Jim Spigelman, John Butterworth, John Gowdie, John Powles, Judith Rich, Louise Higham, Machteld Hali, Norm Mackay, Paddy Dawson, Pat Healy, Ray Leppik, Rick Collins, Robyn Iredale, Sue Johnston, Sue Reeves, Warwick Richards and Wendy Golding. Most of these were students at the University of Sydney.They were joined by numerous Aboriginal communities and also both national and international sympathizers who helped further their cause, eventually cumulating in the 1967 referendum.

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