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Cover story: Two steps forward, one step back - The Freedom Ride 40 years on; Editorial: Remembering Romero; Photos from India.
Two steps forward, one step back - The Freedom Rides 40 years on
40 years ago Dr Charles Perkins led a group of students from the University of Sydney on a tour of regional NSW. The Freedom Ride, as it became known, was inspired by similar actions in the southern states of the USA , and was a key event in the history of Indigenous rights in Australia .
Back then, Dr Perkins and the original Freedom Riders found a sea of segregation and racism. In Walgett Aboriginal veterans were barred from the RSL. In Moree Aboriginal kids were refused entry to the pool. In Bowraville the primary school was segregated, along with the church and the theatre.
The bus was run off the road outside Walgett, and given a police escort outside Wellington to prevent the activists visiting the Aboriginal mission. The ride made the press across the country and internationally. The public outcry which followed led to widespread change, and the end of most formal segregation in Australia .
40 years on, another group of young people, mainly students, are retracing the steps of the original Freedom Riders. Freedom Ride 2005 has been organised by the ReconciliACTION Network, with the support of the NSW Reconciliation Council and Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR). Our aim has been to take stock, see what has been achieved and what remains to be done.
Much has changed since the original ride. In Wellington we were welcomed by the mayor, as well as Aboriginal elders. In Bowraville, the local Aboriginal kids learn their own language. In Moree the local council opened the pool to us and local Indigenous children.
These changes are a tribute to the many people who have fought for the rights of Indigenous people. They are testimony to Dr Charles Perkins, and to the other Indigenous activists, who since 1788 have struggled to achieve justice for their people.
The face of activism has also changed. Where the original ride had only two Indigenous participants, our group is made up of equal numbers of Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants. Where they were led by men, women have been at the forefront of this ride.
But while some things have changed, all too much remains to be done. Racism has not disappeared from Australia . As one Indigenous elder told us, ‘It’s gone underground’.
Aboriginal people are still denied entry to shops - although this is no longer official policy. On leaving Walgett we came across a young Indigenous man who had been denied entry onto a bus for being late. Minutes later the bus driver had allowed a non-Indigenous person to board.
Walking down the streets of some country towns you can still feel the tension, still see a black end of town and a white end of town. And while we were always welcomed by Aboriginal people the white residents in some towns simply refused to talk to us.
For Aboriginal people housing, education and employment are still all unresolved issues. Aboriginal people continue to have a life expectancy twenty years lower than their non-Indigenous counterparts.
A highlight of the trip was hearing about the work that local people are doing to address the problems in their towns. In Dubbo local women have got together to start a literacy service for their kids - one that involves the kids in teaching, and works where schools often fail. Aboriginal Employment Services are leading to real, sustainable employment. And Aboriginal language programs, run by local people, are giving new life to Aboriginal culture.
Reconciliation is also strong on the ground. Despite being sidelined at a national level, the people’s movement has continued to grow. In many of the towns groups of people were coming together, slowly building the groundwork for a lasting and just Reconciliation. Unfortunately, in too many towns Indigenous people were left to build bridges and deal with injustice by themselves.
All of these successful programs had one thing in common - local people were doing it themselves, Indigenous people running Indigenous programs, communities working for Reconciliation. But they increasingly have to do it in spite of government, rather than with government assistance.
The women’s literacy service in Dubbo faces defunding, because it ‘duplicates’ the service run by a non-Indigenous organisation in the centre of town, a service well away from the community and which few of the children use. And while the Aboriginal run services across the state have been successfully working with communities, the federal government wants to ‘mainstream’ Aboriginal affairs, returning the services to government bureaucracies, rather than local people.
It seems that in many ways the federal government has now dealt itself out of this process. The extraordinary things we have seen. The initiatives, the courage, the determination, it is all coming from the grass roots. But even as we move towards July, with the Coalition controlling both houses of parliament, the strength of local reconciliation is a sign that justice is coming, whether the government likes it or not.
Ben Spies Butcher
March 24 2005 was the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador . He was a champion of the poor and oppressed, a man of deep faith who called for a world of peace and justice, a world where violence and war were never options. And for that he was killed.
"Easter is itself now the cry of victory. No one can quench the life that Christ has resurrected. Neither death nor all the banners of death and hatred raised against him and against his church can prevail. He is the victorious one! Just as he will thrive in an unending Easter, so we must accompany him in a Lent and a Holy Week of cross, sacrifice and martyrdom. As he said, blessed are they who are not scandalized by his cross. ...I have no ambition for power, and so with complete freedom I tell the powerful
what is good and what is bad, and I tell any political group what is good and what is bad.
That is my duty.
He was murdered the next day.
Let us remember the peoples around the world who are oppressed by governments and who struggle to live in a society free from abuse and corruption. May the spirit of Oscar Romero be a light to the peoples and a sign to the world that violence and war are not solutions to the problems we face.
The only thing war prevents is peace – as we have seen in Iraq . Imagine what the more than 0 billion the United States has spent on the war in Iraq could have done if it were spent on life rather than death. As one Canadian writer put it recently, ‘…war is the bankruptcy of everything human – imagination, intelligence, compassion, wit, and the facility of speech, discussion, dialogue’.
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children’. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said this. Oscar Romero would have understood what he meant.
Phil GlendenningPhoto Gallery from India Immersion
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