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"Freedom Ride"

"Freedom Rides": Memory, Appropriation, Memorials and Myths
Science Road in the University of Sydney holds a special place in my memory. It was there that I signed on as a foundation member of Student Action for Aborigines in Orientation Week, 1964. Looking back, I cannot remember what motivated me to join. Perhaps it was a logical outcome of being told at school that I had an “Abo nose” or having the Beatitudes drilled into me at Sunday School. Whatever the reason, my life’s course was set on Science Road.

My memories of SAFA are isolated fragments. I have vague recollections that the idea of a bus trip came from myself and Brian Aarons. I remember the warmth of night-time meetings at the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs near Central Station; I remember the kindness of the Reverend Ted Noffs organising accommodation for me at Lismore because I had to do prac. teaching during the first week of the so called “Freedom Ride”; I remember the hostility at the demonstration at the Kempsey pool; I remember the shock of carrying out surveys among the corrugated iron sheds that passed for housing on the reserves. I’ll never forget the let-down at the end, getting off the bus and heading out of the Refectory into the darkness. In the public eye SAFA was the “Freedom Ride”, a fortnight in February 1965. For me it was much more than that. Five of us, Darce Cassidy, Aiden Foy, Wendy Golding, Sue Ann Loftus and myself went on voter registration trips to Bowraville, Collarenabri, Narrabri, Walgett and Wee Waa during the 1965 and 1966 holidays.

Observations, incidents, individuals and conversations form a non-sequential mosaic of memory: heading north in a steam train on a moonlight night; sleeping by the fire on the floor in the waiting room at Lithgow station; a chance encounter with a farmer while hitch–hiking and he telling me with infinite patience that there would soon not be an Aboriginal problem because of a recessive gene that would see them blend into the broader population; a police man lecturing me about the difference between clean dirt and dirty dirt – clean dirt you could wash off – not the stain of dirty dirt; the dignity and resilience of community men such as Harry Hall whose family we stayed with on the river-bank and having a bath in an hot artesian water tank out in the bush at Walgett.

Bowraville still haunts me. We took an Aboriginal boy into the milk bar and bought some milkshakes. Our milk shakes were given to us in aluminium container; the Aboriginal boy was given his in a paper cup. I was physically thrown out of a hotel bar trying to buy a beer for an Aboriginal man. Discrimination extended to the cemetery. Aboriginal people were buried at the bottom of the hill, their graves marked by sea shells.

The momentum of SAFA was lost in the protests against the Vietnam War and conscription. SAFA closed down in late 1966, a decision which I voted against. It was a decision which took student activism out of the struggle for Aboriginal rights and began the mythologising of the bus trip into the “Freedom Ride”. In the public eye I suspect the “Freedom Ride” was seen as the catalyst for the success of the 1967 proposal to amend Section 51 and remove Section 127 of the Constitution. Looking back now I think the referendum was just another exercise in conservative political opportunism.

In 1968 I began to teach and struggled to learn my craft. At a national level Vietnam and conscription continued to dominate public consciousness. I was probably not alone in naively thinking that the government would do something positive after the success of the referendum. In fact the removal of Section 127 from the Constitution as a result of the 1967 Referendum did not bring about equity in education, employment, health or housing. However, through the Australian Bureau of Statistics an insight was provided into the tragedy of the Aboriginal condition.

While most of us thought that the amendments to Section 51 of the Constitution gave the Commonwealth the power to legislate for the benefit of Aboriginal people, John Howard thought otherwise and successfully used those amendments to the detriment of Aboriginal people in the Hindmarsh Bridge Act of 1997.

From the vantage point of cynical old age I can now see that Aboriginal policies since 1967 such as Integration and Self Determination have all been rebadgings of the old Assimilation Policy or, in the case of the Intervention, designed to dismantle remote communities. Dreamt up by White politicians and bureaucrats without any consultation, all these policies are doomed to failure yet all leave Aboriginal communities further behind.

While the Land Rights Acts were possibly well-intentioned, splits between Land Rights Councils and traditional owners were an unforeseen consequence. Keating’s Native Title Act did little for traditional owners. His act legitimated freehold title for White Australia and set virtually impossible hurdles for traditional owners.

Kevin Rudd’s vacuous 2008 Apology was underwritten by a miserable determination that the Federal Government would not set up a compensation fund. John Howard’s refusal to make an apology in the 1990s was more honest. He knew that an apology was defined by regret, a determination to never repeat the mistake and compensation for the harm caused.

It was through working in a school with high numbers of Aboriginal students that I became aware of my Aboriginality. It was an awareness that had been lying there for many years and one day it reached out and seized me. When I raised it with the Aunt who was the Aboriginal Education Assistant she laughed and said that she had been waiting several years for me to say something. I found meaning again in my life as opportunities opened for me to work in Aboriginal education.

I became an Aboriginal education consultant in western Sydney schools before finishing my teaching career working in drug education for Aboriginal students. In this position I ranged across NSW, implementing a drug education strategy for Aboriginal students, taking in the school communities I had visited thirty years earlier.

It was in those visits across NSW as a drug education consultant that I began to question my beliefs and assumptions about SAFA. Looking back I now realise that SFA used Aboriginal communities in rural NSW as a platform to fight a national campaign without really being aware of the nature of Aboriginal activism in those towns. Looking back now at the names on an Aborigines Progressive Association mailing list from the time I realise that there was a strong local network of Aboriginal leaders across NSW of which we were largely unaware.

I realise now that when I got onto that bus in 1965 I unwittingly entered into a binding social contract; an unspoken relationship of reciprocity with the Aboriginal people of those towns who bore the consequences of our visits. Somewhat wiser; I am eternally grateful to those Aboriginal people who have guided, enlightened and taught me that I'm just one of the mob and part of the struggle.

Retirement saw me begin the writing of an online history of contact between Aboriginal people and settlers on the Hawkesbury. What began as a study of primary sources shifted direction with the realisation that almost all the sources were written by opportunistic, often self-made men. Self-interest, silence, omission, obfuscation, denial, distortion, rationalisation and blame-shifting framed a paradigm of European superiority and agency and Aboriginal inferiority and passive recipiency, hiding the essential truth that Australia is a stolen continent.

Thus the alarm bells about the “Freedom Ride” began when I heard words to the effect of "we are going to memorialise the Freedom Ride" ring out during the Charles Perkins Memorial Oration in 2014. My fears were confirmed by an invitation to a series of celebratory events, which to me had little to do with what SAFA stood for. The whole concept of a “Freedom Right Re-enactment” is an oxymoron. There was no “Freedom Ride”. We deliberately did not use the term “Freedom Ride” in 1964-65 as it is inextricably linked to the struggle to extend civil rights to Afro-Americans after the abolition of slavery in the United States.

I am also concerned that the three “Freedom Ride re-enactments” since 1965 appear to have links with the “Recognise” constitutional reform movement and have appropriated the 1965 bus trip for that purpose.

In deciding to "Honour the Freedom Ride" through a re-enactment I think that the University of Sydney has not just appropriated and mythologised the SAFA bus-trip but has also taken a time-warping trip into a past where Aboriginal communities are the passive recipients of White largesse. Memorialisation of the bus trip turns it into just another meaningless milestone.

The members of SAFA do not need memorialisation, but the people of those towns, stubbornly refusing to relinquish their identity, do. It still distresses me to contemplate the discrimination endured by Harry Hall who had put us up in his river-bank home at Walgett. I am still haunted contemplating the consequences for the boy we took into the milk bar and the man for whom I attempted to buy a beer in Bowraville. Given the nature of Aboriginal mortality, is likely that both those men are now dead. It concerns me that my actions may have contributed to the problems caused by alcohol in Aboriginal communities.

Fifty years after SAFA closed I will not be appropriated, memorialised or mythologised. I will be on Science Road in Orientation Week lighting a candle and reclaiming some ground.

Documents relating to Student Action For Aborigines 1964-67