Dr. Charles Perkins

1936- 2000

Dr Charles Perkins was one of Australia's most prominent Aboriginal rights activists prior to his death on October 18, 2000. He was 64.

Perkins, an Aborigine of Arrernte and Kalkadoon descent, was born at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station Aboriginal reserve in the Northern Territory on June 16, 1936. At the age of 10 he was taken to a home for Aboriginal boys in Adelaide, an experience he often referred to later during debates on the "Stolen Generation".

Perkins completed his education at Le Fevre Boys Technical School, qualifying as a fitter and turner. In the late 1950s he played professional soccer in England, then returned to Australia to play for Sydney's Pan Hellenic club. In 1965 he became the Australia's first Aboriginal university graduate when he completed an Arts Degree in psychology and anthropology at Sydney University. He later received an honorary doctorate in law.

During his studies, he became President of Student Action for Aborigines. One of Perkins' more notable achievements was to organise a US-inspired "freedom ride" through rural NSW in 1966 to raise awareness about racial discrimination against Aborigines. During the ride, Perkins exposed segregation through a string of NSW towns such as Moree, Walgett and Wellington.

On the Freedom Ride

"Off we went, in full ignorance of what was ahead of us and not too much courage and not too much knowledge, but we thought, 'Well, let's do it'. And so, we did it."

"I was threatened. I was going to get bashed up. I was punched in the back of the head. I had egg thrown down the back of my shirt, sand poured over my face and over the top of my head, and blokes, women too, pushed, shoved, and bottles flying through the air."

During his university days, he also helped form the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs which produced the "equal rights for Aborigines" campaign. This campaign resulted the 92% yes vote in the 1967 Referendum to change the constitution by granting Aborigines citizenship. He managed the foundation from 1965 until 1969.

On the Referendum

"If they put the same referendum today, it would fail dismally, because there's too much racism in Australian society now and people are more sensitised, in a negative sense, to Aboriginal affairs, and that's being condemning, but that's the way it is in 1996. And I think when people say, 'Give Aborigines a fair go' today, they'd say, 'Yeah, give a fair go providing you don't spend any money."

In 1969 he became a public servant in the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, which became the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1973, eventually becoming its permanent head. Although Mr Perkins was an influential figure in Canberra, he was not a natural bureaucrat. To quote Bob Hawke, Mr Perkins "sometimes found it difficult to observe the constraints usually imposed on permanent heads of departments because he had a burning passion for advancing the interests of his people".

While working for the department in 1974, he took a week's leave to demonstrate at the Aboriginal tent embassy in front of Parliament House. He was Chairman of the Aboriginal Development Commission from 1981-84 and Head of the Aboriginal Affairs Department from 1984-88- the most senior public service position ever held by an Aborigine. In 1988, he was forced to resign as permanent head, charged with maladministration relating to the funding of an Aboriginal social club in Canberra. Inquiries later cleared him of allegations of mismanagement. After leaving Canberra he set himself up as a consultant in Sydney and traveled back to his home country around Alice Springs, where he was initiated into his tribe and became president of the Arrernte Council of Central Australia.

Although he had always a fierce critic of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), Perkins joined the organisation in 1993 and became deputy chairman. He left ATSIC in 1995 to become a consultant to the Australian Sports Commission, mentoring Aboriginal athletes. In 1999, he returned and was appointed ATSIC commissioner for Sydney. He advised the Federal Government on Native Title and was also a member of the team that won Sydney's bid for the 2000 Olympic Games, although he quit SOCOG's National Aboriginal Advisory Committee in order to protest against " this dopey Prime Minister". He inflamed his opponents with remarks that Sydney would "burn, baby, burn" during the Games, in reaction to John Howard's stance on reconciliation, but later said the comments were taken out of context.

Perkins was named Aboriginal of the Year in 1993 and also received an Order of Australia medal.

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