Charles Perkins: a life of commitment

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Kumantjayi Perkins

Doctor Charles Nelson Perrurle Perkins died in a Sydney hospital on 18 October 2000 from complications arising from a kidney transplant which he received in 1972. He was 64 years old.

Charlie was born in 1936 to Hetti, an eastern Arrernte woman. His father Martin was of Kalkadoon and Irish descent. His early years were spent at The Bungalow, near Alice Springs. This period instilled in Charlie an anger at the racist treatment that his people received on a daily basis. That anger was to be nurtured and fine-tuned into political activism as he grew older.

With the permission of his mother, Charlie was taken from his family at the age of 10. But throughout his life he remained a self-proclaimed member of the Stolen Generations. At St Francis House, an Anglican boys’ home, he received not only an education but a deeper understanding of racism.

Charlie had a somewhat chequered career, made all the more interesting because of his ongoing militancy on behalf of Aboriginal people.

A talented soccer player, he went to England and joined the Everton Football Club. Returning to Australia, he became captain and coach for the Sydney club, Pan-Hellinic. His football helped finance his way through university in the ’60s, and remained a lifelong passion.

It was at university that Charlie commenced life as an activist. His militancy thrust him on the public stage, when he and others took on the pervasive racism of rural Australia. Segregation was rife and every blackfella was expected to know his place. Charlie — inspired by the Freedom Rides of the U.S. Civil Rights movement — decided to do something about it!

He organised a bus load of 30 students, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. They visited several of the most racially hostile towns in the NSW countryside — towns such as Moree, Walgett, Wellington, Bowraville and Kempsey.

The Freedom Riders tackled institutionalised racism head on. They challenged the Returned Services League, whose officials barred Aboriginal servicemen and women from the club, except on Anzac Day; the local swimming pools where Aborigines were only allowed use of the pool at certain times; the segregated picture theatres; the shops where Aborigines were always the last to be served; unequal education and healthcare and discriminatory employers; the lack of suitable housing which forced Aborigines to live in rough shacks without town utilities and facilities. They exposed the widespread prostitution of Aboriginal women for the benefit of white men.

The Freedom Ride was an unprecedented protest that exposed Australian-style apartheid and gave Charlie a national profile. It showed him how the media could be used to highlight the conditions of Indigenous people. It was a lesson he never forgot, speaking out at every opportunity.

Wherever Charlie went, controversy always followed. He became the secretary of the Federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1983, after joining its predecesor, the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, in 1969. He was forced to resign in 1988 by the Minister, Gerry Hand, who, stung by Charlie’s forthrightness, trumped up nepotism allegations to cover up the political hatchet job. In an editorial at the time, the Freedom Socialist Bulletin said: “The sacking of Perkins is an attack, and the case is clearly a witch-hunt set up to smear Aboriginal communities and suggest they are incapable of running their own affairs. Perkins has been used as a scapegoat to try to diffuse the growing support for a treaty with Aboriginal Australia.”

Charlie received many honours, but they were far outnumbered by his fights on behalf of his people. He didn’t give a damn whom he offended and was reviled as much as he was loved. He had one burning lifelong ambition and that was to try to bring Aborigines and non-Aborigines together.

At age 55 he became an initiated man of his people, the eastern Arrernte, and was given the tribal name, Kumantjayi.

His fighting spirit will be with us always.

Charlie, as so often was the case throughout his life, has the final word:

“My expectation of a good Australia is when white people would be proud to speak an Aboriginal language, when they realise that Aboriginal culture and all that goes with it, philosophy, art, language, kinship, is all part of their heritage. And that is the most unbelievable thing of all, that it’s all there waiting for us all. White people can inherit 40,000 or 60,000 years of culture, and all they have to do is reach out and ask for it.”

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