Review of Freedom Ride: A Freedom Rider Remembers, by Ann Curthoys

Eras Journal – Fenwick, J.: Review of “Freedom Ride: A Freedom Rider Remembers”, Curthoys, Ann

Ann Curthoys, Freedom Ride: A Freedom Rider Remembers,
Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, 2002
Isbn 1 86448 922 7

In February 1965 a group comprised mainly of university students from Sydney set out on a bus tour to challenge the segregation and discrimination that was a feature of country towns throughout Australia. In this book, ‘freedom rider’ Ann Curthoys relives the experience of the Freedom Ride, drawing largely upon a diary written during the journey and the recollections of indigenous and non-indigenous people who were involved. Contemporary media reports as well as secondary accounts supplement the story, drawing attention to the impact of the ride and highlighting the ways in which the events have been remembered.

Freedom Ride begins with an account of a student demonstration for African-American civil rights in Sydney in May 1964. Goaded by criticism of the event, which emphasized that campaigners only appeared to be concerned with discrimination overseas, the students began to address racial inequalities at home. Gradually, Curthoys reports, the students became part of a growing movement within Australia that sought full citizenship rights for Aboriginal people. The students were influenced by American ideas of non-violent direct action and, in particular, by Martin Luther King’s idea of ‘creative tension’ and, after canvassing a number of options for student action, they decided upon a tour along similar lines to the 1961 Freedom Rides in the United States. Six months preparation was to follow in which the group, which called itself Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA), gathered information on conditions in country towns, prepared a survey to be carried out on the trip, raised funds and publicised the ride.

Having introduced those involved in the tour, Curthoys describes conditions that the freedom riders encountered. In some of the towns, while there was evidence of racial discrimination, the students decided that there was nothing substantial or blatant enough to justify a demonstration; sometimes there was also a lack of Aboriginal support for direct action. In such cases, they concentrated on surveying Aboriginal residents and white locals about the treatment of indigenous people within the town. In others, such as Walgett, Moree, Bowraville and Kemsey, the students picketed the local RSL, swimming pool, or theatre and engaged in public street debates and meetings. The book chronicles the responses to the tour, describing local support and hostility, providing details of rural newspapers’ mainly unfavourable reaction, and comparing this to the coverage of urban and city newspapers. After considering the immediate impact of the trip, the author reports on the return trips to the towns (and other country areas), as the students continued to pressure townspeople to address social discrimination and to provide support for Aboriginal groups which they had contacted. Freedom Ride also moves beyond the narrative of the tour to an exploration of the ways in which the tour has been remembered and to an analysis of the effects of the ride. Curthoys demonstrates that while the tour contributed to a reconsideration of the treatment of indigenous people and to improvements in their conditions, it did not bring an end to problems in indigenous and non-indigenous relations. Indeed, the book serves to remind us of their longevity, persistence and depth.

Curthoys challenges the collective narrative of the Freedom Ride which focuses on the clashes at Walgett and Moree; on the role that students played in improving the social conditions of Aboriginal people; and on the ways in which the ride enabled Charles Perkins to become one of the leading figures in Aboriginal politics. The author adds to these accounts by fleshing out the stories of other towns which the students visited, such as Wellington, Gulargambone, Boggabilla, Lismore, Bowraville and Kemsey, where students carried out surveys about the treatment of Aboriginal people, visited reserves and stations, and staged demonstrations. Curthoys also reveals that the Freedom Ride did not solely consist of one tour in the summer of 1965, but that many towns were revisited and others added as students attempted to provide ongoing support. Further, the book corrects past remembrances by drawing attention to the role that the local Aboriginal people played during and after the Freedom Ride visits.

Curthoys rightly notes that observers, activists and historians differ in how they have viewed the Freedom Ride. For some, the achievements of the tour are overshadowed by other, much larger campaigns in the 1960s, such as the call for a referendum and the struggles for equal wages and land rights. Others have drawn more attention to the trip itself, recognising the important role it played in bringing Aboriginal affairs into the public and political arenas, thus positioning the tour as a pivotal moment in the development of a new kind of Aboriginal politics in which indigenous people were encouraged to take greater control over Aboriginal affairs. Curthoys shares the view that the ride assisted in the emergence of a new, confident Aboriginal leadership and politics and that the tour urged a reconsideration of the treatment of indigenous people throughout Australia. Moreover, she argues that while it represented only a ‘brief episode’ in the long history of the pro-Aboriginal political movement, the tour was nevertheless a turning point in race relations in Australia. Rather than explore its impact on indigenous and non-indigenous relations, however, Curthoys argues more generally that this ‘shift’ was within the left, which was to become more prominent during this time, and that it also signaled the end of the Cold War period in Australian political culture. Curthoys also seems unwilling to enter into a discussion of how the freedom ride responded to assimilation. Instead, she contends that it had no clear position, being ‘on the one hand supportive of Aboriginal initiative and freedom of choice, and on the other concentrating its attention on Aboriginal admission to the benefits of white society’ (p.292). I would argue, however, that although pro-Aboriginal political organisations were against assimilation in this period, they frequently supported integration, and the demands for equal rights in the 1960s often upheld this position. In my opinion, Freedom Ride warrants a more thorough exploration of the ways in which the Freedom Ride was influenced by these ideas. Despite these shortcomings, the narrative makes a unique contribution to the accounts of the Freedom Ride with its personal insights into the history of these events. Curthoy’s book serves to broaden our understanding of the SAFA tour and the conditions it encountered, as well as 1960s activism and the history of relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Australia more generally.

Julie Fenwick

School of Historical Studies, Monash University