CHARLES PERKINS AND THE FREEDOM RIDE
Kumantjayi (Charles) Perkins was born in Alice Springs in 1936. His early education was at school in Adelaide. A skilled soccer player, Perkins played professional soccer in England from 1957 to 1960. Having turned down an offer to try out for Manchester United, he returned to Australia to coach a local Adelaide team. Here he became vice president of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines. Perkins moved to Sydney in 1962 and in 1963 became captain and coach of the Pan Hellenic Club. to redress it. The tour was also a response to the criticism that Australians were quick to champion the work of Martin Luther King and the United States civil rights movement but slow to do anything to redress racism in Australia. In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans led a program of protest and civil disobedience against racist policies that denied people their civil rights. In Australia, the activists of the Freedom Ride were concerned with: • Aborigines’ appalling living and health conditions • Aborigines being forced to live on reserves outside country towns • local authorities denying Aborigines access to facilities like hotels, clubs and swimming pools • the fact that Aborigines were not counted as citizens in their own land. The ﬁrst step in each town was to survey both indigenous and non-indigenous people to ﬁnd out about the living, education and health conditions of local Aborigines. If there was an issue of blatant discrimination, the Freedom Riders took action to publicise and hopefully overturn it. Perkins admired the efforts of the US civil rights activist Martin Luther King, and he encouraged SAFA members to read King’s ‘letter from Birmingham Gaol’.
A young Charles Perkins receives a trophy as captain–coach of Adelaide Croatia football club, 1961.
In 1963 he also began studies at Sydney University, where he was a founding member of Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA), later becoming president. On 12 February 1965, he and fellow student Jim Spigelman led about 28 others on a 14-day, 3200-kilometre bus tour of rural New South Wales that became known as the Freedom Ride.
THE 1965 FREEDOM RIDE
The tour targeted towns like Walgett, Moree and Kempsey, which had the reputation of being racist towards their Aboriginal inhabitants, and included some like Lismore that were supposed to have better records. The aim was to raise awareness of discrimination against Aboriginal people and to try
Photograph showing the Freedom Riders with the bus that took them on their month-long campaign
CIVICS AND CITIZENSHIP FOCUS
Perkins was particularly interested in King’s emphasis on ‘non-violent direct action’ and establishing ‘creative tension’ by dramatically highlighting examples of discrimination so that people could not continue to ignore them. Whereas the 1961 Freedom Rides in the United States had speciﬁcally focused on the desegregation of interstate transport, in Australia the focus was on the desegregation of leisure facilities in country towns and information-gathering on race relations in rural New South Wales. The ﬁrst two stops were at Wellington and Gullargambone, where the Aboriginal people surveyed spoke of their need for housing and access to fresh water on the reserves. Racial discrimination was a major problem and not one that the local indigenous people felt they could work with SAFA to ﬁght. The bus moved on to Walgett. who had been murdered on a country road while campaigning in Alabama. They saw four or ﬁve cars surrounding them and were relieved to ﬁnd that these were driven by local Aborigines who had come out to offer protection. The other trucks and cars disappeared. A journalist witnessed the incident and it became headline news in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Mirror and the Australian. Mirror reporter Gerald Stone and his editor Zell...