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Riding the Freedom Bus

By Kirsten Cheatham - posted Monday, 21 March 2005


Take a handful of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, put them together on a bus for two weeks discussing the affairs of the nation and what do you get? Well, besides 20-something sausage sizzles, sleep deprivation and a wave of cultural and sexual tension, you get a very different take on Howard’s notion of “Practical reconciliation” that’s for sure.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1965 Freedom Ride, led by Indigenous icon and activist Dr Charles Perkins, this year a group of 30 students, social justice advocates and filmmakers set off into the unknown of regional NSW to take stock of just how much has changed in the past 40 years and to generate a new debate on the status of reconciliation in Australia.

An event of historical significance, the Freedom Ride of 1965 brought to light for the first time the discrimination and injustice endured by Indigenous people. Sparked by similar protests in the southern states of America, it was a part of the Aboriginal civil rights movement and an event that was the impetus for change in Aboriginal affairs in this country. Not only did it influence the push for, and the outcome of, the 1967 referendum, but it also spawned a new generation of freethinkers, activists and leaders. Most notable were Charles Perkins, the first Aboriginal graduate of the University of Sydney: Professor Ann Curthoys and the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales Jim Spigelman.

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Whilst our trip would be significant in the reconciliation process, following in the shadow of the 1965 Freedom Ride was a daunting task as we were all too aware that our journey would never be able to emulate exactly the achievements of the original. We were not breaking colour baths or protesting outside of partitioned cinemas, we were simply going out to talk to people, to take stock of how far we have come as a nation in the past 40 years and identifying what still needs to change in order to move forward.

In 1965 racism and desegregation were high on the agenda. In 2005 the focus was the Freedom Ride as a vehicle for reconciliation.

Admittedly it is a very different Australia today than what it was back in 1965. In this day and age few if any Australians could imagine being excluded from the local swimming pool, cinema or RSL Club purely on the basis of race. To me this type of racism is simply unfathomable, but to many it is a memory because it did happen, and it was the efforts of the original Freedom Ride that forced this change.

As an Indigenous student in a very privileged position at university it is often very easy to forget the struggle through which the liberties that I now take for granted were realised.

But that’s not to say that everything has changed because the general consensus is that too much has stayed the same. Aboriginal people are still facing the same disadvantages and fighting some of the same battles they were fighting 40 years ago.

A common thread that emerged as we ventured through country NSW was that whilst the face of racism was nothing like it was in 1965, discrimination is still very much a part of day to day life for Aboriginal people.

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Having grown up in a middle-class, non-Indigenous household without much exposure to racism, I naively took into this initiative my own perceptions on what I thought the face of racism was and the part we could play in changing that. Whilst I was of the opinion that racism inevitably did exist, at least subtly, never did I expect to have my illusions completely shattered. On the third day into the trip, in one fell swoop, both my own and the group’s outlook on race relations changed forever as the harsh reality of racism reared its ugly head and proved that it is still very much alive and kicking.

Not long after leaving a bar in Gulargambone where we had shared a drink in front of the wall formerly used to segregate Aboriginal patrons from non-Aboriginal ones, we were approached by a young Aboriginal man with a very timely dilemma. In what can only be described as a first hand account of racial discrimination we listened as he explained that he had been denied entry to a CountryLink bus despite having a valid ticket. En route to Walgett we stopped at a service station only to find the bus stationed there. Our Indigenous leader Daniel Syron did not waste any time in confronting the bus driver who conveniently yet unsuccessfully denied everything. When pressed as to his actions, the driver replied firstly that there were no available seats on the bus, and then that the boy was late, to which he added “I am like a train, when the doors close I go”. All of this after he had let on a non-Indigenous passenger, just moments after. Not happy with this outcome a young non-Indigenous woman on the bus protested, only to be told to pipe down or she would be kicked off the bus.

This incident however was just one of many stories we heard on our journey. Others told us of racism in the realms of real estate, police abuse and profuse monitoring in shops. In Tenterfield one non-Indigenous young man relayed a disturbing story of the actions of what are supposed to be the protectors and law enforcers of our society. He referred in disgust to having witnessed a policemen make a young Aboriginal boy kiss his shoes after having stopped and searched him.

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Article edited by Angus Ibbott.
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About the Author

Kirsten Cheatham, a descendent of the Kamilaroi people and a 2nd year arts/law student at the University of Sydney.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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