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  • Writer's pictureErin Hackett

Have you heard of the 1965 Freedom Ride?

Updated: Jul 28, 2023


Student Action For Aborigines (SAFA) on Freedom Ride 1965
Source: AIATSIS Collection

A colleague recently shared a captivating piece of history with me—a community event in Walgett, New South Wales, where a touching memorial commemorated the courageous Freedom Ride of 1965. My passion for the past led me to delve deeper into the backstory, eager to grasp the essence of this significant moment.


The Freedom Ride was a 15-day bus tour through regional New South Wales, organised by passionate members of the Sydney University Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA), with Charles Perkins--one of only two Aboriginal students at the university--presiding over the movement. Their mission arose from disturbing reports of racial discrimination and dire living conditions faced by Indigenous Australians in regional NSW. One of their planned stops was the town of Walgett.


What captured my attention was a particular report that ignited the fire within these students—the refusal of the Walgett RSL to welcome Aboriginal Diggers who had heroically served in World War II. As many of you know from my writing, my heart resonates deeply with military history, especially the stories of individuals, their experiences, and the profound psychological and moral impacts they endure.


This compelling narrative urged me to seek further insights into the untold stories of our Indigenous Australians in service. Driven by curiosity, I embarked on my own journey through time, armed with nothing but a magnifying glass and writing case to examine the State Library micro-cache archives.


No, not really.


This is the age of digital information, so instead of traversing the corridors of a grand library, I found myself visiting the treasure chest of history. That is Trove Online.


Uncovering information from the few local newspaper rags from the time and digging into our Australian War Memorial and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) records, here’s the story behind Australia’s Indigenous Diggers and their relevance to the Freedom Ride of 1965.



Freedom Ride 1965 Protest in Walgett, NSW
Source: Oxford University Press

"Bullets did not discriminate."



This was one of the taglines emblazoned on the student's banners during the Freedom Ride pickets in Walgett. Though this is true, the path to enlisting in World War II was marred by the army and navy’s "colour bar," which presented barriers for young Aboriginal men and women seeking to serve their country. Nonetheless, their determination to serve remained unwavering, fueled by a sense of duty to a nation that did not even grant them citizenship.

Remarkably, the RAAF did not impose the same restrictions, as Australia committed to supplying 27,000 airmen to the UK, needing to meet that critical quota. The irony of these disparities was both glaring and disheartening.


During World War II, only three Indigenous pilots flew missions—Flight Sergeant Leonard Waters, Flight Sergeant Arnold Lockyer, and Pilot Officer David Paul. Sadly, FS Lockyer became a prisoner of war in Indonesia, succumbing just six days after the war's end.


The impact of the war reached Australia's shores through the infamous Japanese attack on Darwin, prompting the government to relax the colour bar. In total, it is estimated that more than 4000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals served on both Australian and overseas soil during World War II. Yet, they earned less than half the pay of their non-Indigenous counterparts and were seldom honoured with senior ranks or service medals. One exception is Reg Saunders MBE, a Gunditjmara man and the first Indigenous commissioned officer in the Australian Army.


Reg Saunders
Source: AWM

Venturing across the Torres Strait Island chain, approximately 880 recruits enlisted, a staggering figure considering the estimated able-bodied male Indigenous population was just 890. This astounding commitment speaks volumes about the determination of a community to safeguard their homeland and country.


Regrettably, I could not unearth the precise number of all those brave individuals who paid the ultimate price among the enlisted Indigenous personnel. However, historical records reveal that 12 became prisoners of war.



"On the battlefield, everyone was equal. Aboriginal and white Australians fought side by side. But any equality was stripped upon the return home." Dot Peters



The bitter truth remained; upon returning, Indigenous diggers faced the same discrimination as before, their hearts barred from the embrace of RSL clubs, except for one solitary hour on ANZAC Day.


Twenty years after World War II's conclusion, Sydney University students embarked on a powerful journey to Walgett, defending those who once fought for them. With unwavering determination, they picketed outside the RSL Club for hours, joined by 350 local citizens, united in their quest to challenge the injustice that barred Aboriginal Diggers from belonging to the very establishment they rightfully represented. The same ‘colour bar’ that had once restricted them from enlisting and conveniently reversed when their country suddenly 'needed' them.


Indeed, we cannot turn a blind eye to the Walgett RSLs profound response to the protest's claims: “Don't forget that the club buried two Aboriginal servicemen who died this year at a cost of £75 each.” Mr. Tom Hogan, Secretary of the Walgett RSL Club.




The echoes of that fateful day resonate still within the Walgett community, a lasting reminder of the power of collective action and the fight for justice. Like any protest where ideologies clash, and beliefs collide, the day wasn't without its moments of violence. Later that evening, following the student's departure from the local church hall after being asked to leave, their bus was deliberately run off the road by a truck after three attempts to overturn their vehicle.


Evidence of endemic racism was now broadcast to all of Australia to witness on the evening news, and the media had started to compare the events of the Freedom Ride to the civil rights movement in the United States.



"This incident is as serious as any that has occurred in the racial strife in the United States. Somebody tried to kill these students … It has revealed the seriousness of the racial problem in Australia.” The Canberra Times, 1965



Despite facing a vehement backlash from opposing members of the regional community, the students stood firm in their mission. Fear was not an option. Armed with determination, a resounding voice, and unwavering support for their cause, they pressed on to more towns in regional NSW, leading further protests against blatant segregation and confronting more hostility. Yet, through it all, their purpose remained clear—to show city dwellers that racism was an undeniable reality in Australia.


This tale serves as a poignant reminder that history is not merely a collection of events but stories of courage, resilience, and the unyielding pursuit of justice threaded together across the span of time. As we remember all that has gone before, we honour those who fought for a brighter, more equal tomorrow—whether on the battlefield or on our home soil.


Now, tell me, had you heard of the 1965 Freedom Ride? Because I sure hadn't.


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