Freedom Ride remembered

Freedom Ride remembered

Exactly 42 years before the national apology to Australia's indigenous people, aboriginal campaigner, Charles Perkins, led a protest dubbed the Freedom Ride.

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SBS Reporter Emma Hannigan has been following the trail, meeting some of those involved and examining how the Freedom Ride changed their lives.

Twenty-nine students set out on a campaign to expose racial segregation and discrimination.

In the 1960's in Australia aborigines couldn't marry without permission, enter a pub, swim in a public pool or vote.

Angry at the injustices, the late Charles Perkins, the First aborigine to attend university, led a busload of students into the outback of New South Wales.

The first confrontation came in Walgett, a town where many of the local businesses operated a colour ban, among them the RSL Club.

“No-one was allowed to go into the RSL, no-one was allowed to go into the hotels”¦The students came in and broke all the colour bars in the hotel and the RSL and of course they can go anywhere now,” said campaigner Harry Hall.

The group moved on to Moree.

“What we expected to find in Moree was a lot of racism in terms of the picture hall, in terms of the swimming pool in term of the town hall,” Charles Perkins had said back in 1993.

The students gathered up local aboriginal children and brought them to the baths.

It was at the Moree baths that the most contentious day of the Freedom ride took place. For more than three hours Charlie Perkins and the students tried but failed to get the aboriginal children in there for a swim.

“We didn't understand the impact of the commotion. Everyone was screaming and singing out, we thought it was fun,” remembers Wayne Nein, who was one of those children and 11 years old at the time.

But the events of that day demonstrated that change was possible.

“A lot of the young people started to understand what discrimination was when they went to the pool that day and a lot of people went on to stand up and be counted as aboriginal people,” says indigenous campaigner Lyall Munro Senior.

It brought aboriginal issues to the front pages of the newspapers for the first time ever.

Journalist Gerald Stone wrote about the Freedom Ride.

“I talked to an aboriginal woman who had four children, two of them were allowed to go to the baths because they were of a lighter complexion, two of them were banned because they were of a darker complexion. That to me said everything about what these people were demonstrating for.”

The freedom ride began a new era of awareness about social injustice.

The people who fought that battle 42 years ago are hopeful that the apology to the stolen generation will herald another new era in Australian history.