“Growing up, there were no bolts and chains on the mission or in town but there was an invisible gate that you couldn’t get through and I would always think ‘What did we do wrong to deserve this treatment?’
How Aboriginal activism brought about change
A new exhibition showcases artwork of a time when Aboriginal activists drew attention to civil rights.
IT WAS BUT HALF a century ago, a time still sharp in the minds of a baby boomer generation, that landmark battles were waged and won by Aboriginal people, for Aboriginal people. In the 1960s, Aboriginal people achieved citizenship, financial assistance, and equal pay, and won back rights to their land and rights to the preservation of their cultural heritage.
“The 60s was the most important era for Aboriginal people,” says Noeline Briggs-Smith, Aboriginal historian and educator. “It brought to the attention of the government at that time that Aboriginal issues needed – badly – to be looked at and the changes that came impacted greatly on the lives of Aboriginal people.”
For many activists in NSW, one event and one year is set down in history – the Freedom Rides in 1965.
Led by Charlie Perkins, Australia’s first indigenous university graduate, the Freedom Riders travelled through the NSW country towns of Walgett, Gulargambone, Kempsey, Bowraville and Moree, protesting Aboriginal exclusion from clubs, swimming pools, cafes and picture theatres. The students uncovered violent racism, exposed huge welfare disparity, and stood in the face of the strong, often violent, opposition they encountered in many of the towns.
Indigenous Australia challenging the establishment
Noeline Briggs-Smith, born in 1940, grew up in the camps and missions of Moree in north-western NSW. It was this outback town – the only municipality with a written Act banning Aboriginal people from public venues – that played host to some of the most intense conflict the Freedom Riders faced.
“Things improved when Charlie came to town,” Noeline says. “I believe, as an Aboriginal historian, that what Charlie did was let the rest of the nation know about racism and segregation, and that led towards the overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote in 1967. And it was the young people [who] helped Charlie. The older ones didn’t want to shake things up – they said ‘We have to work in this town after all this’ – but the young ones would say ‘Why can’t we get served? Why can’t we go to the bar? Why do we have to have a segregated hospital ward?’”
Jim Spigelman, a recently retired NSW Chief Justice, was a student activist in the 60s and one of the students involved in the Freedom Rides. In 1965, aged 19, Jim was the activist group’s secretary, and he says the demonstration chalked up crucial points in the battle for Aboriginal rights.
“This tour was the first time that the plight of Aborigines was front-page news for a sustained period. I am sure it did much to make all Australians aware of the issues and expanded the support for action, primarily because of the violence we encountered. I, myself, was king hit and knocked to the ground when we were demonstrating against the absolute ban on any Aborigine swimming in the municipal pool in Moree,” Jim says.
“Of equal significance was the fact the Charlie was clearly the leader. This was the first time, perhaps outside sport, that an indigenous Australian was seen to be in a political and social leadership role.”
Along with pushing the issue of racism into the mainstream, demonstrations in the 60s like the Freedom Rides also brought the idea of activism to the attention of disparate and disillusioned Aboriginal people. Indigenous artist, illustrator and author Elaine Russell, 70, was born in Tingha, near Moree, and grew up on missions at Lake Cargelligo in central NSW, and La Perouse in Sydney. Elaine says the Freedom Rides were crucial in the lives of all Aboriginal people.
“We weren’t all front runners like Charlie, but we needed people like that. These people weren’t afraid to go out and get what they believed in and that’s what we needed,” she says.
“Growing up, there were no bolts and chains on the mission or in town but there was an invisible gate that you couldn’t get through and I would always think ‘What did we do wrong to deserve this treatment?’ The fighters like Charlie Perkins, they’re the ones [who] opened the doors for us. They’ve done plenty for how Aboriginal people are treated today. They were all pioneers.”