The Freedom Ride brought unprecedented media attention to racism against Aboriginal people in Australia, writes Myles Morgan.
Myles Morgan

19 Feb 2015 - 6:06 PM  UPDATED 3 Feb 2016 - 9:56 AM

Racism and segregation was very much alive in country New South Wales in 1965, and then-student Charlie Perkins worked to bring these issues into the light.

"A lot of Australians talk about 'We want to give the Aborigines a fair go', then it's full stop and it's usually forgotten," Charlie Perkins had said.

"They never go on to say 'We propose to give such and such a scholarship to a number of Aborigines, let us support an Aboriginal organisation, let us vote in favour of any legislation which allows for the elevation of Aboriginal people'. They don't do these things. They talk about it, but they never do it."

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Explainer: What was Australia's Freedom Ride?
Today is the 52nd anniversary of the momentous Freedom Ride that journeyed through western New South Wales in February 1965 to draw attention to injustice and discrimination against our First Peoples of Australia.

Doctor Nina Burridge, University of Technology Associate Professor in the Arts and Social Science Faculty, said in 1965 Prime Minister Robert Menzies' government was enjoying its post-WWII prosperity. "So it was certainly looking inwards on its own successes, but we had a move towards multiculturalism too so that was a huge shift in the white Australia policy," she said.

However Dr Burridge said Australians did not recognise there was discrimination in their country in the early sixties.

"They didn't see themselves as racist in those legislative frameworks. But, if you look at what we had in place, not only did we prevent Aboriginal people from voting, they were seen as non-citizens in our Constitution,” she said.

In addition to segregation, the state government had been evicting Aboriginal people from their missions and the 1961 Native Welfare Conference of Federal and State Ministers adopted assimilation as policy.

Because Indigenous Australians had been resisting this, in 1965, the Native Welfare Conference amended the definition of the assimilation policy to include an element of choice:

"The policy of assimilation seeks that all persons of Aboriginal descent will choose to attain a similar manner of living to that of other Australians and live as members of a single community."

Fifty years later, some priceless treasures from that bus ride exist at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra including the diary of one of the Freedom riders, Ann Curthoy who was an arts student at the time.

"If you look at what we had in place, not only did we prevent Aboriginal people from voting, they were seen as non-citizens in our Constitution."

It contains a draft schedule that the Freedom Riders planned to execute such as an itinerary that included Walgett, Moree and Kempsey, as well as accommodation which church organisations had offered.

AIATSIS holds the surveys that the Freedom Riders asked Aboriginal and non-Indigenous community members to complete. The survey asked the public questions such as what qualities a good and bad "Aborigine" had.

The challenge today, according to Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, is that casual racism still exists across Australia.

"I'm certainly aware of the passive racism that happens almost everywhere we go," Mr Scullion said,

"And it's really important we talk about it and help people understand Aboriginal people are still Australians, you just shouldn't treat them differently."