Historic and present-day campaigns for Indigenous Civil Rights
James Baker, ‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
In December 2020, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the country’s national anthem will be amended in order to better represent the nation’s aboriginal past. The anthem will no longer refer to Australia as being ‘young and free’, a change that was well-received in the country’s parliament. It came as part of a broader campaign to better recognise indigenous Australians, including the induction of Johnny Mullagh to the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame, the first aboriginal player to receive this accolade. When exploring the role of indigenous Australians in the country’s past, a defining event that is often overlooked is the Freedom Ride of 1965. This was inspired partly by the American Civil Rights movement and particularly the Freedom Rides that took place earlier in the decade. While many Australians continued to support the movement in the US, these events also encouraged people to address domestic civil rights abuses.
This is not to say that Australians at the time had previously been oblivious to indigenous issues. Just one month prior to the Freedom Ride, an article in the Canberra Times explored a recent survey conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald that found that tens of thousands of indigenous Australians were suffering from poverty, wage discrimination and limited access to education. Racism, both institutional and societal, was stated to be the cause, with the article citing substandard legislation as well as social indifference towards these problems. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not yet recognised as Australian citizens and they had therefore been consistently ignored by governments at all levels.
Equally, aboriginal groups had been active in Australia for many decades prior to the Freedom Ride and had taken inspiration from campaigns in other parts of the world. For example, aboriginal dockworkers in Sydney campaigned throughout the early-twentieth century against racial discrimination, low wages and dangerous working conditions. Their occupation required them to travel across the Pacific Ocean which meant that many workers also witnessed first-hand several African anti-imperialist and social justice campaigns. As Alyssa L. Trometter has explained, indigenous labourers understood their struggle to be global and ideas pertaining to the attainment of racial equality were frequently exchanged between both continents. The Australian Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s built upon these earlier exchanges while utilising many of the same methods used in American campaigns for racial equality, including the Freedom Rides.
The Australian Freedom Ride commenced in 1965 in New South Wales. The student-led campaign was largely organised by Charles Perkins who would later become the first indigenous graduate of an Australian university. The event sought to highlight ongoing economic and social prejudices against indigenous Australians in addition to explaining how provincial governments continued to exclude aboriginal people from public facilities. The public baths at Moree became a symbol of the region’s ongoing racial segregation. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had long been banned from these and other such venues, and white opponents of the Freedom Ride subjected the participants to racism and violence during attempts to desegregate the pool. Moreover, after their demonstration in Walgett, a driver of a large vehicle attempted to collide with the bus carrying the Freedom Riders, forcing the bus off the road and placing the lives of the demonstrators in danger. Despite this, local newspapers rarely reported the incident and the culprit was not brought to justice. The Freedom Ride continued undeterred. As the year progressed, the campaign gained increasing indigenous and non-indigenous support with pressure on the federal government to introduce civil rights for First Nation Australians intensifying.
The Freedom Ride succeeded in bringing about many positive changes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Locally, the Freedom Ride led to the desegregation of Moree Baths as well as cinemas, hair salons and other amenities across New South Wales. As for Charles Perkins, after becoming the first indigenous graduate of tertiary education, he would later become the first indigenous Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and would have a substantial influence on Australian politics throughout this career. This event is also widely credited with helping to bring about the 1967 Australian Referendum, the result of which meant that indigenous people were given citizenship and stronger civil protections. The attainment of legal recognition for aboriginal Australians demonstrates that the Freedom Ride was not simply a local movement, but instead influenced public opinion and highlighted injustices nationwide.
Sadly, this did not lead to the outright cessation of discrimination against indigenous Australians. Aboriginal Australians are still disproportionally affected by unemployment, economic hardship and reduced access to state education. Furthermore, in 2008 the Australian Federal Government apologised to indigenous children who had been forcibly removed from their families to be raised in governmental and religious institutions. Official estimates suggest that as many as one in three indigenous children were separated from their families between 1910 and 1970. In some states including Victoria, this practice continued until 1976, over a decade after the Freedom Ride took place. Moreover, societal prejudice still persists. A 2020 study at Australia National University found that 3 in 4 people held a negative view of indigenous Australians and recent Black Lives Matter protests highlighted the ongoing issue of aboriginal deaths in police custody, with over 400 having occurred in the last thirty years alone.
It is however important to remember that First Nation Australians have played an active role in advocating for civil rights and legal equality. The Freedom Ride began as a local movement but gained national support and succeeded in creating meaningful legal change for the country’s minority groups. It must be remembered not only as a pivotal moment for the country’s treatment of its indigenous peoples but also for the global campaign for human rights. The influence of this event can still be felt today and underlines the significant contribution that indigenous Australians have made to the country’s history, a contribution that for far too long has been all but disregarded.