Charles Perkins (Aboriginal activist)

This article is about the Australian Aboriginal sports figure and activist. For other persons with this name, see Charles Perkins (disambiguation).
Charles Perkins

Charles Perkins, approx 1965, first Aboriginal Australian to graduate from the University of Sydney.
Born (1936-06-16)16 June 1936[1]
Alice Springs, Northern Territory
Died 19 October 2000(2000-10-19) (aged 64)
Sydney, New South Wales
Cause of death Renal failure
Nationality Australian
Other names Charlie Perkins, Kumantjayi Perkins
Education Bachelor of Arts
Alma mater University of Sydney
Known for Activism, Public Service, Sport
Spouse(s) Eileen Munchenberg
Children Hetti, Rachel and Adam

Charles Nelson Perkins, AO,[2] commonly known as Charlie Perkins,(16 June 1936 – 19 October 2000[3]) was an Australian Aboriginal activist, soccer player and administrator.

Early life and family

Charles Perkins was born in Alice Springs, originally from nearby Arltunga, to Hetti Perkins and Martin Connelly, originally from Mount Isa, Queensland. His mother was born to a white father and an Arrernte mother, while his father was born to an Irish father and a Kalkadoon mother. Perkins had one full sibling and nine other half-siblings by his mother, and was also a cousin of artist and soccer player John Moriarty.

Between 1952 and 1957, Perkins worked as an apprentice fitter and turner for the British Tube Mills company in Adelaide.[4]

He married Eileen Munchenberg on 23 September 1961 and had two daughters (Hetti and Rachel), and a son (Adam).[4]


He was educated at St Mary's Church School in Alice Springs, St Francis College for Aboriginal Boys in Adelaide, the Metropolitan Business College, Sydney and the University of Sydney from where he graduated in 1966 with a Bachelor of Arts. He was the first Aboriginal man in Australia to graduate from university. While at university he worked part-time for the City of South Sydney cleaning toilets.[5][6]

Public life

The Freedom Ride

In 1965 he was one of the key members of the Freedom Ride – a bus tour through New South Wales by activists protesting discrimination against Aboriginal people in small towns in NSW, Australia. This action was inspired by the US Civil Rights Freedom Ride campaign in 1961. The Australian Freedom Ride aimed to expose discrepancies in living, education and health conditions among the Aboriginal population. The tour targeted rural towns such as Walgett, Moree, and Kempsey. They acted to publicise acts of blatant discrimination. This was demonstrated through one of the Freedom Ride activities in Walgett. A local RSL club refused entry to Aborigines, including those who were ex-servicemen who participated in the two World Wars. At one stage during the Rides, the protesters' bus was run off the road.

On 20 February 1965, Perkins and his party tried to enter the swimming pool at Moree, where the local council had barred Aboriginal people from swimming since its opening 40 years earlier. In response to this action the riders faced physical opposition from several hundred local white Australians, including community leaders, and were pelted with eggs and tomatoes. These events were broadcast across Australia, and under pressure from public opinion, the council eventually reversed the ban on Aboriginal swimmers. The Freedom Ride then moved on, but on the way out they were followed by a line of cars, one of which collided with the rear of their bus forcing them to return to Moree where they found that the council had reneged on their previous decision. The Freedom Riders protested again forcing the council to again remove the ban.[7]

1967 Referendum

In 1967 a referendum was held on constitutional amendments to allow inclusion of Aboriginal people in censuses and giving the Parliament of Australia the right to introduce legislation specifically for Aboriginal people. In the lead up to the referendum Perkins was manager of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, an organization that took a key role in advocating a Yes vote. The constitutional amendment passed with a 90.77% majority.

Public service

In 1969 Perkins began his career in public service as a Senior Research Officer with the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. In 1972, as a public servant, he was suspended for alleged improper conduct after he called the LiberalCountry Coalition government in Western Australia 'racist and redneck'.

In 1981 he was appointed Permanent Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the first Aboriginal to become a permanent head of a federal government department. He served as Chairman of the Aboriginal Development Commission between 1981 and 1984. Throughout his career he was a strident critic of Australian Government policies on indigenous affairs and was renowned for his fiery comments. Prime Minister Bob Hawke once said of Perkins that he "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". Perkins served as Secretary until 1988. A year later he became Chairman of the Arrernte Council of Central Australia.

In 1993 Perkins was elected commissioner of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission for an area of the central Northern Territory. In 1994 he was elected Deputy Chairperson of ATSIC.

Public commentary

On 7 April 2000, Perkins suggested that 'Sydney will burn during the [Sydney 2000] Olympics.' The comment sparked outrage from many quarters.[8] In May 2000 Perkins declared that the Australian Football League and the Australian Rugby League were racist, suggesting that the AFL "acts in a racist manner at the highest level."[9]

Charles Perkins
Personal information
Full name Charles Nelson Perkins
Date of birth 16 June 1936
Place of birth Australia
Date of death 19 October 2000(2000-10-19) (aged 64)
Senior career*
Years Team Apps (Gls)
1950 Port Thistle ?
1954–1955 International United ?
1956–1957 Fiorentina ?
1957 Budapest ?
1957 Everton 0 (0)
1957–1959 Bishop Auckland ?
1959–1960 Adelaide Croatia ?
1961–1964 Pan-Hellenic ?
?-1969 Bankstown ?
Teams managed
1959–1960 Adelaide Croatia
1961–1964 Pan-Hellenic

* Senior club appearances and goals counted for the domestic league only and correct as of 15 December 2008.

Soccer career

Perkins began playing in 1950 with Adelaide team Port Thistle. In 1951 he was selected for a South Australia under 18 representative team. He went on to play for a number of teams in Adelaide including International United (1954–55), Budapest (1956–57) and Fiorentina (1957).

In 1957 he was invited to trial with English first division team Liverpool F.C.. Perkins ended up trialling and training with Liverpool's city rival Everton FC. While at Everton Perkins had a physical confrontation with the Everton reserve grade manager after being called a "kangaroo bastard." After this incident Perkins left Everton FC to move to Wigan where he worked as a coal miner at the Mosley Common Colliery alongside Great Britain rugby league player Terry O'Grady. Perkins played two seasons for leading English amateur team Bishop Auckland F.C. between 1957 and 1959. Perkins in mid-1959 decided to return to Australia after trialling with Manchester United.[4]

On returning to Australia Perkins was appointed captain/coach of Adelaide Croatia. At Croatia he played alongside notable Aboriginal figures Gordon Briscoe and John Moriarty.[10][11]

In 1961 when Perkins moved to Sydney to study at university he played with Pan-Hellenic (later known as Sydney Olympic FC) in the New South Wales State League where he became captain/coach. He later played for Bankstown and retired in 1965.

He later served as president of former National Soccer League team Canberra City. He was appointed Australian Soccer Federation (a forerunner of the Football Federation Australia) vice-president in 1987 and was the chairman of the Australian Indoor Soccer Federation (later known as the Australian Futsal Federation) for ten years until his death in Sydney in 2000.[7][10]

Awards and honours

Perkins was awarded Jaycees Young Man of the Year in 1966, NAIDOC Aboriginal of the Year in 1993 and an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1987.[2] Perkins was inducted into the Football Federation Australia Football Hall of Fame for services as a player, coach and administrator in 2000. In 1998 Perkins was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters by the University of Western Sydney. Shortly before his death he was awarded an honorary doctorate of law by the University of Sydney. Perkins was named by the National Trust of Australia as one of Australia's Living National Treasures.

In 2001 The Dr Charles Perkins AO Memorial Oration and Dr Charles Perkins AO Memorial Prize were established in his honour by the University of Sydney. In 2009 The Charlie Perkins trust instituted two scholarships per year to allow indigenous Australians to study for up to three years at the University of Oxford.[12][13][14][15]

In 2012 The University of Sydney Centre for Obesity, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease was renamed the Charles Perkins Centre in his recognition.

Film and documentary

Freedom Ride

Freedom Ride is part of a four-episode documentary by Rachel Perkins and Ned Lander. It tells a chapter of Charles Perkins' life. The Freedom Ride was a bus load of concerned white and black people, most of them university students, who visited several towns in rural and outback Australia to elevate public awareness of racial intolerance in Australia.[16]

Fire Talker: The Life and Times of Charlie Perkins

This film by Ivan Sen uses archival footage from early 1960s to 2001 and builds an intimate and honest portrait of Perkins life bound inexorably with the most dramatic political shifts in Australian Indigenous policy.[17]

Remembering Charlie Perkins

2009 Charlie Perkins memorial oration, Gordon Briscoe recalls Perkins' fight for equality and liberty.[18]


Perkins died on 19 October 2000 of renal failure. During the 1970s Perkins had a kidney transplant and at the time of his death was the longest post-transplant survivor in Australia.[4][19] In the period immediately following his death, he was known as Kumantjayi Perkins, Kumantjayi being a name used to refer to a deceased person in Arrernte culture.[20]


  1. Read, Peter (2001). Charles Perkins: a biography. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books. p. 351. ISBN 0-14-100688-9.
  2. 1 2 Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) entry for PERKINS, Charles Nelson, Canberra, Australia: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 26 January 1987, Retrieved 9 March 2015, "AO AD 87. FOR SERVICE TO ABORIGINAL WELFARE"
  3. Perkins, Charles (1975). A Bastard like me. Sydney: Ure Smith. p. 199. ISBN 0-7254-0256-3.
  4. 1 2 3 4 "Papers of Charles Perkins (1936–2000)". National Library of Australia. April 2002. Retrieved 2007-01-20.
  5. Perkins, Charles (5 May 1998). "Charles Perkins - Tape 3". Australian Biography (Interview). Interview with Robin Hughes. I used to clean the toilets, down at South Sydney, and I used to do such a good job they said, 'Why don't you take this on full time?' I used to make them sparkle - all the public toilets round the place, and the one at South Sydney Depot, right down Redfern. And I used to clean them, I had no problem. Any job is a good job. And ah, you know if anybody else can do it I can do it. External link in |work= (help);
  6. "Charles Perkins". University of Sydney. Retrieved 18 December 2012.
  7. 1 2 Cockerill, Michael (2001-04-20). "Australian football loses a trail-blazer". FIFA. Retrieved 2007-01-20.
  8. "Charles Perkins – Obituary". The Times. The Times Magazine. 2000-08-20. Archived from the original on 21 April 2012. Retrieved 2008-07-19 via European Network for Indigenous Australian Rights.
  9. "AFL: Charles Perkins brands AFL and ARL as racist". AAP. 2000-05-24. Retrieved 2008-12-17.
  10. 1 2 Perkins, Charles (5 May 1998). "Charles Perkins - Tape2". Australian Biography (Interview). Interview with Robin Hughes. External link in |work= (help);
  11. Jupp, James (2001). The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins. Cambridge University Press. p. 248. ISBN 0-521-80789-1.
  12. Funding for Indigenous Oxford scholarships (ABC News)
  13. "The Australian Football Hall of Fame". Football Federation Australia. Archived from the original on 7 January 2011. Retrieved 2008-12-09.
  14. "Dr Charles Perkins AO Annual Memorial Oration and Prize". University of Sydney. Retrieved 2008-12-18.
  15. "List of Treasures". National Trust. Retrieved 2008-12-18.
  16. 1 2 "Aboriginal resources > Movies > Freedom Ride".
  17. "Message Sticks, Australia's only Indigenous film festival celebrates its 10th anniversary" (Press release). Sydney Opera House. Retrieved 9 March 2015.
  18. "Gordon Briscoe Remembers His Friend Charlie Perkins". Big Ideas. 6 November 2009. ABC News 24.
  19. "Hetty Perkins discusses kidney research fundraising". PM. ABC Radio. Retrieved 2009-10-08.
  20. "Should you name a dead Aboriginal person?". Creative Spirits, Jens Korff. Retrieved 2008-12-18.
Government offices
Preceded by
John Taylor
Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs
1984 – 1988
Succeeded by
Bill Gray
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