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Inspired by the Freedom Riders of the American Civil Rights Movement, students from the University of Sydney formed a group called the Student Action for Aboriginals, led by Charles Perkins (the first Australian Aborigine to graduate tertiary education) among others, and travelled into New South Wales country towns on what some of them considered a fact-finding mission. What they encountered was de facto segregation; the students protested, picketed, and faced violence, raising the issue of indigenous rights. They commonly stood protesting for hours at segregated areas such as pools, parks and pubs which raised a mixed reception in the country towns. Australia overwhelmingly passed a 1967 referendum removing discriminatory sections from the Australian Constitution and enabling the federal government to take direct action in Aboriginal affairs.
At the time of the Freedom Ride in 1965, some Aboriginal people of Australia were counted separately in the census and their rights as citizens were regularly ignored. They were often considered lesser human beings because of the colour of their skin, and treated that way. In 1964 a University of Sydney protest against racial segregation in the United States had brought comments from members of the public urging students to look to their own backyard if they wanted to draw attention to racial discrimination.
The original Freedom Riders were: Charles Perkins, Gary Williams, Aidan Foy, Alan Outhred, Alex Mills, Ann Curthoys, Barry Corr, Beth Hansen, Bob Gallagher, Brian Aarons, Chris Page, Colin Bradford, Darce Cassidy, David Pepper, Derek Molloy, Hall Greenland, Helen Gray, Jim Spigelman, John Butterworth, John Gowdie, John Powles, Judith Rich, Louise Higham, Machteld Hali, Norm Mackay, Paddy Dawson, Pat Healy, Ray Leppik, Rick Collins, Robyn Iredale, Sue Johnston, Sue Reeves, Warwick Richards and Wendy Golding.
Moree was the site of a violent conflict during the Freedom Ride. After a protest at Walgett an unidentified driver rammed the bus forcing it off the road. Because cadet reporter Bruce Maxwell had come along, the incident made headlines in the Sydney Morning Herald, attracting the attention of international media. Some reports compared the treatment of Aboriginals to the racism and segregation in the Deep South of the United States.
The first two towns they went to were Wellington and Gulargambone. Protests were not conducted there. Instead the locals were asked questions which affirmed perceptions of how bad discrimination against indigenous Australians was in rural areas. Other towns that were visited include Lismore, Bowraville and Kempsey.
In 2005 another ride travelled through New South Wales. The aim was to determine how much had changed in 40 years and foster debate on reconciliation. Although the 2005 event focussed on reconciliation, experiences of discrimination were reported and the poor housing conditions for some Aboriginal people were noted. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Andrew Refshauge was presented with the findings of the 2005 ride which visited more than 13 communities.