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Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration

CHAPTER 9

THE PERSONAL IS HISTORICAL: Writing about the Freedom Ride of 1965

Ann Curthoys

Decades ago, when I was a History student, we were told never to use the pronoun ‘I’ when writing history. The aim was to write a third-person narrative in such a way that the narrator remained hidden, unknown, unimportant. This stricture is still passed on by some historians, as students are told to focus on the narrative, the story they have to tell, and to keep themselves well out of sight or hearing in the text. Yet the idea and practice of foregrounding the narrator, the story-teller, the historian, is rapidly gaining ground. We are learning to use the once-forbidden personal pronoun as a means of writing history, foregrounding the existence of interpretation in general, and our own interpretation in particular. By saying ‘I’, many argue, we are not aggrandising but rather relativising ourselves, drawing attention to the possibility of other views, interpretations, and ways of representing the past, to the limited and contingent nature of historical knowledge. By saying ‘I’, we leave the reader freer to judge and weigh up the historical narrative we have offered, and ourselves the space to admit to what we don’t know, or cannot figure out.

Sometimes, though, the use of ‘I’ is important for a more direct reason—our own involvement in the events narrated. In the history I am writing of the Australian ‘Freedom Ride’ of 1965, the issue of narrational point of view becomes critical precisely because I was involved in the events myself. I am writing a history rather than an autobiography or memoir, partly because my own role in these events is relatively small, and partly because the project relies on extensive historical research into the wider historical context. In the early stages of the project I agonised quite a lot about the problems of the ex-participant as historian, concerned about issues of objectivity, believability, self-justification, and the like. If we are writing about events in which we were in some way involved, can we develop a truly historical perspective, or will there always be an element of self-justification, however unconscious? Even if there isn’t, will our readers think there is? As the research has gone on, I have become less and less worried by these issues, as the sheer quantity of historical research—written and oral—takes over. But I still have the problem of form, of how to represent my own involvement while telling a much larger story. This is the problem I explore here.

The Australian ‘Freedom Ride’ took place in February 1965. At that time, a group of 30 university students from the University of Sydney, none of them Aboriginal except for their leading figure, Charles Perkins, travelled in a bus for two weeks around country towns in northern New South Wales, protesting against discrimination against Aboriginal people. It was consciously modelled on similar events in the southern United States, where especially in 1963 and 1964 both black and white civil rights campaigners had travelled in buses campaigning for basic civil rights for African Americans. The Australian students met with high levels of hostility from white townsfolk, massive media coverage, and stimulated widespread debate and concern over race relations in Australia. The significance of the event has since been debated, some seeing it as a turning point in the challenging of institutionalised racism in Australia, some seeing it as only a minor aspect of a much longer and larger protest movement for Aboriginal citizenship and civil rights, and some suggesting it held the struggle for Aboriginal full citizenship and civil rights back rather than pushed it forward.1

The Prologue to my book on these events may begin this way.

DAILY MIRROR, 20 FEBRUARY 1965. BY A SPECIAL REPORTER (GERALD STONE)

Sydney University students were attacked by a mob outside Moree swimming pool this afternoon. Many were punched and their clothes were spattered with ripe tomatoes and rotten fruit. A youth was arrested for punching a student and another for assaulting a Press photographer … As the students left the pool another two men were arrested … Earlier in the day, 10 students were thrown bodily from the entrance to the pool. The Mayor of Moree, Ald. W. Lloyd, helped to carry one of them. The students returned immediately and the baths manager then decided to close the pool. The students then decided to stay until the pool was reopened. A crowd of about 500 local residents became more hostile as the students’ demonstration continued. The students were sitting in the shade at the baths entrance while the crowd, kept back by the police, were jammed together under the hot sun. About an hour before the demonstration ended at 5.30 pm the secretary of the students body, Mr Jim Spigelman, 19, of Maroubra, was assaulted. He was knocked to the ground after being hit in the stomach and on the chin by two youths … Another student, Mr John Butterworth, 20, of Turella, had his glasses smashed. Other students, including girls, complained they had been burnt with cigarette butts … The crowd jeered the students and tomatoes and rotten fruit were thrown at the students from behind the fence.

The Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Moree and two other aldermen then held an emergency meeting inside the pool with three student representatives, Mr Charles Perkins, Mr Spigelman and Miss Patricia Healy. Twenty minutes later, the Mayor, Alderman Lloyd, announced that two of the aldermen had agreed to sign a motion to rescind a resolution on the council book discriminating against aborigines. The resolution, passed in 1955, states that no person being an aboriginal or having an admixture of aboriginal blood should use, occupy or be present upon the area known as the bore baths or any associated facility …

The students then decided to leave the pool. The crowd by this time was becoming more violent. The police offered to escort the students through the back gate of the baths, but the students refused. The jeering rose to a deafening pitch as the students walked towards their bus at the front of the baths. Policemen and burly council workers tried to clear a path, but the crowd closed in. Some students were punched and others hit with rotten fruit. The side of the bus was also splattered with fruit as police escorted it out of town towards Inverell. Many cars followed the bus out of town …

GERALD STONE, INTERVIEW, 7 FEBRUARY 1994

Well, I suppose the perspective I’d give to that story was having come from the United States a couple of years before where the Freedom Rides were just beginning to become popular, or as a means of protest, and of course this was an Australian imitation, just the use of the word Freedom Ride was taken from the Americans at that time. I was amazed at how absolutely unsophisticated and pristine this political movement was … How young they were and what they were trying to do, it was very imitative, and I don’t think they realised what they were tapping in the Australian psyche. In my mind a lot of the protest was not over the Aboriginal issue so much as some of these people were wearing beards and they were university students and there was a lot of antagonism that I remember from Moree …

They tried to get into the swimming pool, they were knocked back from the swimming pool. And everybody was very uncomfortable. I mean Australians are not exactly demonstrative people and country people are not out there to cause trouble. This was so new to everybody and nobody quite knew how to act, that the people that were trying to protect the Moree baths—I think the mayoral faction as I recall—and on the one hand they wanted to be firm and on the other they didn’t want to cause trouble … But I still think at Moree that anything that happened there was more a reaction to the snottynosed university kids coming up from Sydney than any Aboriginal presence.

BILL LLOYD, FORMER MAYOR OF MOREE, INTERVIEWED BY ME, 5 APRIL 1991

I was at the State Emergency Service, talking to the Director, and some VIPs, when an urgent message came that there was trouble at the baths, and to come over. I left the function, and went straight over. You students were doing your passive resistance, obstructing entry to the baths, passive resistance came from South Africa I think. I had only a couple of council employees and the baths manager to help me. A huge crowd gathered. A lot of them were shearers, in town on a Saturday afternoon, a much bigger crowd than you would ever expect in Moree. The crowd grew, and it was very hostile to the students. There were Aborigines in the crowd, hostile to the students. It was a frightening awesome thing, a crowd out of control. I saw respected businessmen there, throwing tomatoes, eggs, and other things. I learnt then how awful a crowd out of control could be. The whole thing was getting out of hand …

The police refused to help, refused to remove the students from the baths, saying it was my responsibility and my problem. I rang two solicitors in town for advice, as I thought the police were obliged to help me, but the solicitors couldn’t help. So I was on my own … I had to give all the instructions, the police wouldn’t help. I found out later I shouldn’t have had to do that, that the police should have helped. I arranged for the bus to be driven right up to the baths, and for the students to get on, with police assistance. We did it as quickly as possible, but there were still missiles thrown, and students were hit. The students got on the bus, and the police kept the crowd back from the bus. The police told the driver to get out of town, and escorted the bus out, so that no one would try and attack it. The police blocked all exits from the town, so no one could attack you students.

ANN CURTHOYS, DIARY ENTRY 20 FEBRUARY 1965

We went on to Moree, arriving at about 12.30 pm. We went straight to Thompson’s Row, where the ‘town’ aborigines live. We found that that morning the aboriginal children there had been given swimming club tickets which meant that they could enter the baths at any time. The children from Bingara Rd and the Mission had not got these tickets, and were refused entry.

The Thompson’s Row people obviously felt little or no sympathy for the other aborigines and were not prepared to fight for them. A case of ‘divide and rule’ as most of us soon realised. Then we went to the Mission. Bill refused to drive the bus onto the mission, so Charlie and Beth went … The manager wouldn’t let them stay and so they only had time to ask about 4 or 5 of the kids to come along. Sue and Chris went in Bob Brown’s car to get some kids from the Bingara Rd shanty town. We all congregated at the shop opposite the baths, and the bus left us. Very quickly a huge and noisy crowd gathered.

We had to wait quite a while before Charlie could take the children to the baths. There were 9 of them and they were refused admission. Then we all went to the swimming pool and lined up behind the children, continually requesting permission to enter. Charlie started talking to the crowd, but there was a lot of hissing and booing. Then he went to the front of the line and when he refused to move was grabbed and taken away from the line. Then John Powell, Lou, Beth, Alex, myself and a couple of others were removed by the mayor first asking us if we would move, us saying no (individually) and then they put their hand on our backs and took us away from the line. Chris Page sat down and was carried off.

Those of us who had been walked off were prevented from rejoining the line as we had intended. Angry discussion broke out everywhere. I have never met such hostile, hate-filled people. The hostility seemed to be directed at us as university student intruders rather than to the aborigines …

CHARLES PERKINS, A BASTARD LIKE ME, 1975

And the crowd came, hundreds of them. They were pressing about twenty deep around the gate. Then the police arrived. They had received instructions by this time from the Labor Party which was in power in New South Wales at that time, to lay off us. ‘Don’t do anything that will cause any controversy with these people. Go with them as far as you can’, seemed to be government advice to the police … the whole of the police force from Moree and surrounding towns were called in … the mayor of the town rolled up. (Recently when I went to Moree he shook my hand and reflected on what a good thing the Freedom Ride was for the town. But at that time it was a different story.)

LETTER, PHILIP HAYWARD TO ANN CURTHOYS, 1 JUNE 1994

With my wife and family I was resident in the Moree district for many years both before and after that date. My wife and I were both active in the Moree Aboriginal Advancement Society and in church, school, and public affairs … The churches, the schools and the Aboriginal Advancement Society had worked for a number of years to bring about the easing of tension. The Moree Municipal council controlled the town baths, from where aborigines were barred. But those who favoured the lifting of this ban had after many years achieved a majority on Council and were planning to have the ban lifted. Then along came the Freedom riders. Such was the antagonism they engendered in the town and among the aldermen that the aldermen decided that they would not move at that time, not wanting it to be thought that they were being ‘railroaded’ into a decision. So they deliberately withheld their move for a few months. So what was then seen as being a result of the ‘Freedom Ride’ was in fact a decision delayed for six months because of the ‘Freedom Ride’.

While there is a common emotional resonance to these accounts, they are told from different perspectives, and many of the details are different. I am one of my own sources, writing a diary as a 19-year-old participant, and again as an intrepid historical researcher many years later. I like the effect of these juxtapositions, and the challenge they provide to the reader. Yet collage of this kind, made up of juxtaposed quotes from my various sources, will not in fact form the dominant mode of narration in the book. While it needs a form of narrative that draws attention to its specific grounding in time and place and to the impossibility of a unified narrative, it also needs a story that is accessible, compelling and strong. In searching for the appropriate narrative voice, I have played with various ways of representing different points of view, as well as with anti-chronological organisation, theoretical asides, and much else. I have pondered the idea of representing different voices in specific typefaces, as Richard Price did in Alabi’s World.2 I have played with Peter Burke’s ideas of adopting some of the techniques of the modernist novel, such as the unreliable narrator or alternative endings.3

On a practical level, how can I refer to myself as an actor in an event that occurred in 1965? Should I say ‘she’ for the person I was, who no longer exists, or ‘I’? (I’ve settled on ‘I’, as ‘she’ seems a little ridiculous.) Should the group of students of which I was one be referred to as ‘they’ or ‘we’? ‘They’ seems unnaturally distant, a false objectivity perhaps, while ‘we’ is much too close, suggesting far too much unity between the historian and largely forgotten events of over thirty years ago. I’m working with ‘they’. So far, the mixture of ‘I’ and ‘they’ is working out fine.

I have also had to confront the question of writing inter-racial history, a history of relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Australia, an ongoing history to which I belong on the non-indigenous side. There are ethical as well as stylistic problems, of finding a voice which is honest and true, which does not try to appropriate other people’s stories, which embodies a full recognition that there is no objective space outside our racialised histories from which to write. In this context the reflexive ‘I’ becomes even more important.

In the end, I have adopted a reasonably straightforward narrative approach. My publisher has urged that I leave historiographical reflection to the end, and the marketing people have insisted that I keep a strong personal note, a strong authentic ‘I’ voice, if the book is to sell. The conventional aspects of the book include a rejection of self-consciously fictional elements, and sticking rigorously to my sources, whether these be written, oral or visual. I have settled also on a chronological structure; after the prologue I go back several decades, and move forward from there. I have only one typeface, and hope from the writing itself to do the job different typefaces achieve, that is to let the reader know about different voices, in some tension with one another.

On the other hand, the book does aspire to some postmodern elements. I have tried to foreground my own role as historian, former participant and writer. The chronological structure is disturbed by flashes back and forth in time. I have not seen it as possible to present a single explanation for the events I describe, preferring to present within my narrative a range of competing and possible understandings, each of which has validity if certain presuppositions are made. My own involvement, complicity perhaps, seems to make it all the more imperative that interpretation is left open, for others to disagree with or judge as they will.

And that is where it stands at the moment, with a whole lot written, and a book still in the process of emergence. Occasionally I panic that the project is so difficult, and my life so burdened with other responsibilities, that I will never get it done at all.4

ENDNOTES

1     See P. Read’s detailed account, Charles Perkins: A Biography, Viking, Ringwood, 1990.

2     R. Price, Alabi’s World, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1990.

3     P. Burke, ‘History of Events and the Revival of Narrative’, in P. Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1991, pp. 237–40. See my ‘Sex and Racism: Australia in the 1960s’, in Jane Long et al. (eds), Forging Identities, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1997, pp. 11–28.

4     It was published as Freedom Ride: A Freedomrider Remembers, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2002.

Cite this chapter as: Curthoys, Ann. 2009. ‘The personal is historical: writing about the Freedom Ride of 1965’. Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration, edited by Curthoys, Ann; McGrath, Ann. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 9.1–9.7.

© Copyright 2009 Ann Curthoys
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Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration

   by Ann Curthoys and Ann Mcgrath