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In February 1965 a group of 35 students from the University of Sydney, calling themselves Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA), hired a bus and toured regional NSW to protest the treatment and living conditions of Aboriginal people. It was a 15-day stopover tour of towns with large Aboriginal populations, including Wellington, Gulargambone, Walgett, Moree, Boggabilla, Grafton, Lismore and Cabbage Tree Island, Bowraville and Kempsey. The Freedom Riders wanted to expose the exclusion of Aboriginal people from public services or the “colour bar” that was in place in many areas. Overt racism was most blatant at public places like movie theatres, swimming pools, restaurants, pubs and clubs.
The ride was led by Charles Perkins, one of the first Indigenous students enrolled at the University of Sydney. In the early 1960s, Perkins and other students were inspired by the actions of students fighting, often violently, against segregation in the southern states of the USA in what were the original Freedom Rides. Apart from SAFA, Perkins was also involved with other organisations campaigning for civil rights, notably the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) and the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship in Sydney.
The SAFA Freedom Ride was covered by Noel Hazard, photographer and writer for the Tribune newspaper – the paper of the Communist Party of Australia. Hazard followed the students for most of their 15-day ride capturing many remarkable images of their protest, as well as stark observations of Aboriginal people and the conditions in their communities. Hazard’s photos of protests at Moree swimming pool document a flashpoint event in the history of race relations in Australia. The swimming pool protests were reported and broadcast nationally, and overseas, bringing racial discrimination to the attention of the Australian public, effectively forcing Australians to examine their attitudes to Aboriginal Australians.
Freedom Ride, February 1965
Later in the year, in August 1965, the Freedom Riders returned to Walgett to help local Aboriginal people in their protest against segregation at the Luxury Theatre. With more than 300 onlookers, including photographer Noel Hazard, local Aboriginal men Harry Hall and Ted Fields bought tickets and sat in seats usually reserved for white people, ending the era of segregation at the movie theatre since it was opened in 1937.
Freedom Ride to Walgett, August 1965
There were no more Freedom Rides after 1965 with SAFA being disbanded at the end of 1966. A referendum on Aboriginal rights was held the following year, in May 1967, with 90.77% of Australian adults voting "YES" for Aboriginal people.