Charles Perkins: Freedom Rides
On the night of the 12 February 1965, 30 university students from Sydney boarded a bus and set off to campaign in the country towns of New South Wales. Officially called Student Action for Aborigines, they were led by Charles Perkins, a young man who would become one of the most important Australian Aboriginal activists, as well as a leader in the Aboriginal community through his work as a politician and bureaucrat, as well as through his sporting achievements as a soccer player, coach and administrator.
Perkins was often a controversial leader in the Aboriginal community. He was seen as a pioneering spokesman and bureaucrat, and was known for his determination and willingness to fight for what he believed in, which sometimes brought him into conflict with the government and other community leaders. His involvement in the 'Freedom Ride' (as it came to be known) through rural New South Wales in the early 1960s played a crucial role in bringing attention to the plight of rural Aboriginal people and showing that Aboriginal people could have effective political representation from within their own communities.
Perkins, born in 1936, spent his early childhood in a police-patrolled compound in Alice Springs. He was not one of the 'stolen generations' in the sense that he was not forcibly removed from his mother, however, he did spend his childhood and adolescence away from his family, in St Francis House, a boys' home in Adelaide. Perkins reported having an unhappy childhood. He suffered racial vilification, was ostracised and alienated socially and generally was treated as a second-class citizen by his peers.
Perkins' skill as a soccer player took him out of this environment, and he travelled to England, playing for leading amateur teams. He tried out for the top clubs and eventually declined an offer from Manchester United. On his return to Australia in 1960, Perkins became the captain and coach of Pan-Hellenic (which later became Sydney Olympic) in the New South Wales State League. He retired from professional soccer in 1965. After his education in Adelaide and his soccer days, Perkins went to the University of Sydney, from where he graduated in 1965 with a Bachelor of Arts. He was the first Indigenous Australian to graduate from tertiary education in Australia. See image 1
In 1965 he led the Student Action for Aborigines group on the first 'Freedom Ride', a bus trip designed to protest and bring to attention to the racial discrimination that was rife in rural communities. In the 1960s Aboriginal people, although technically citizens since 1947 (when a separate Australian citizenship was created for the first time, before that time all Australians being 'British subjects') were barely treated as such. Dispossessed from their lands, they were forced to live on reserves and missions, small settlements on the outskirts of towns. Conditions there were extremely poor, with sub-standard 'shanty' housing, no plumbing, electricity or other amenities. In the towns racism was entrenched and widespread. Aboriginal people did not have access to amenities, such as cinemas, hotels, cafés and swimming pools, and often suffered prejudice and suspicion as well as verbal and, sometimes, physical abuse.
In the early 1960s, through newspapers and television, Australians were becoming increasingly aware of the growing Civil Rights movement in the southern states of the United States. The original 'Freedom Rides' in the American South were a series of 1961 student political protests which took the form of bus trips through the southern states. Student volunteers, both African American and white, rode in interstate buses into the pro-segregationist South so as to test a 1960 United States Supreme Court decision (Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454) which outlawed racial segregation in interstate public facilities, including bus stations. The American Freedom Rides were met with violent protest and hostility, particularly in the State of Alabama, but the publicity resulting from the trips and the violent reaction to them led to a stricter enforcement of the earlier Supreme Court decision and increased public awareness of racism in society.
In August of 1963 a landmark civil rights event took place in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Around 250 000 people marched on Washington, D.C. This march was one of the largest protests seen in the US, and received extensive media coverage. Protests in support of the Civil Rights movement occurred in Australia as well. In Canberra in 1964, 2000 university students protested in front of the US consulate supporting the Civil Rights Bill which was being considered by the US Congress.
Inspired by events in the US, the Australian Freedom Riders left Sydney and, upon reaching country towns like Wellington and Gulargumbone, conducted surveys with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to find out about their opinions and the living conditions in the local areas. These interviews reaffirmed how dire the situation was. The Freedom Riders did not, however, protest in these towns.
In the town of Walgett they decided to picket the Walgett RSL, as a protest against the treatment of Aboriginal people. The RSL was the home of the Anzac legend, which was the foundation of Australian ideas of 'mateship' and nationhood .This did not extend to ex-servicemen of Aboriginal descent, who were only allowed to use the RSL facilities on Anzac day, or not at all. The Walgett RSL protest was covered by the media. The coverage of the Freedom Ride grew when the bus was rammed off the road by a local man one night, with this incident making headlines in the Sydney Morning Herald.
At Moree, covered by an increasing press contingent, the students decided to address the segregation of the local swimming pool. The protest had three elements, from picketing the front of the council chambers, to taking Aboriginal children to the pool and holding a public meeting that evening. The protest was generally considered a great success with the pool being effectively desegregated. As it went along, the Freedom Ride gained national and international press coverage. The bus travelled down the east coast, stopping at Lismore, Bowraville and Kempsey before returning to Sydney. See animation
The legacy of the Freedom Ride and the follow-up trips that were made was a greater awareness of Aboriginal issues in a rural context. Perkins and his fellow students had successfully stirred up debate and sparked discussion around Australia on the state of Aboriginal affairs. The media coverage the trip gained led to pressure for reform at national and international levels.
This debate, in part, led to the 1967 Referendum, which approved two amendments to the Australian constitution. The first amendment involved removing a phrase in Section 51 of the Commonwealth Constitution, which stated that the federal government had the power to make laws with respect to 'the people of any race, other than the Aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws'. By removing the provision 'other than the Aboriginal race in any State' this gave the Commonwealth government the power to make laws specifically to benefit Aboriginal people. This was an important step in increasing the government's ability to provide welfare, empowerment and access to justice for Aboriginal people.
The second amendment was concerned with documenting the Aboriginal population. The referendum removed the provision in the Constitution which said that when calculating the population of the States and territories for the purpose of allocating seats in parliament and per capita Commonwealth grants, Aboriginal people were not to be counted. This provision had a historical origin in preventing Queensland and Western Australia using their large Aboriginal populations to gain extra seats or extra funds from the Commonwealth, but its removal had significant symbolic power in doing away with official distinctions between the Aboriginal and non-indigenous populations.
One of the criticisms of the freedom riders, from their opponents but also from Indigenous groups, was that they had simply 'stirred up trouble' in the towns and then left the townspeople to cope with the aftermath. It has, however, been argued that through the Freedom Ride and subsequent follow-up trips, important connections were made and the groundwork was laid for the development of Aboriginal Legal and Medical Services in country towns, with some of the freedom riders playing important roles in the founding of these services.
Another consequence of the Freedom Ride was the emergence of Charles Perkins as a national leader of Aboriginal people. In the wake of the bus trip he began a significant career as a public servant whose work in Canberra brought about many advances for Aboriginal people, but also attracted a great deal of criticism, culminating in his eventual sacking by the Hawke Labor Government. He was appointed head of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1984, and was the first Indigenous Australian to become a permanent head of a federal government department. In 1987 Perkins was awarded the Order of Australia.
He left his position as departmental head in 1988 after a clash with a government minister over financial mismanagement. This event was followed by an inquiry which cleared him of the charges brought against him. Although he did not return to a government role, he continued to speak out on Aboriginal issues including the historic Mabo and Wik decisions on Native Title. Perkins was also notable as being the world's longest recorded survivor after a kidney transplant, which he received in 1972. Perkins died in October of 2000 and was given a State funeral. Upon his death he was given the mourning name Kumantjayi Perkins.