Dr Charlie Perkins: the Australian hero you should know about

This amazing activist gathered a group of black and white protesters, placed them in a bus, and took the fight for equality to rural Australia. On the way they got egged and rammed by other vehicles, but they also managed to edge Australia closer to equality.

As a young white Australian, I didn’t know who Charlie Perkins was until I was 26. I don’t know if this is typical of other young Aussies (but my guess – highly likely!). Now I wonder why Charlie Perkins is not as well-known as civil rights activist Rosa Parks, or celebrated Australian Professor Ian Frazer.  Here’s what I’ve learnt about Charlie, and why I think everyone should know about him.

Early years

Charles (Charlie) Perkins was born in Alice Springs to Hetty Perkins, an Elder of the Eastern Arrernte people, and Martin Connelly. 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.

Charlie was educated in Alice Springs, then Adelaide and then Sydney. He graduated from the University of Sydney in 1966, becoming the first Aboriginal man in Australia to graduate from university.

The Freedom Rides

In the early 60s, overt discrimination was a fact of life for Aboriginal people. It wasn’t unusual for rural shops and cafes to refuse to serve Aboriginal people, and for picture theatres to be segregated. There were massive discrepancies between Indigenous and white people when it came to living, education and health conditions (50 years later, things aren’t much better).

The world had just witnessed the 1961 US Civil Rights Freedom Riders, who had ridden buses in a challenge to racial segregation on public buses. Charlie and a few other students saw this and, inspired, kicked off their own Freedom Ride in 1965.

The premise was simple – gather a busload of concerned white and black people, put them in said bus, and drive around rural and outback Australia to raise public awareness of racial intolerance.

Conflicts and wins

The activists targeted acts of blatant discrimination in rural New South Wales towns. An RSL club in Walgett at the time refused to let Aboriginal people enter, even those who were ex-servicemen. So the activists took their bus to protest at Walgett. Afterwards, an unidentified driver rammed the Freedom Bus, forcing it off the road. Unfortunately for that driver, a cadet reporter had come along with the Freedom Riders and the incident made headlines across the world.

Later, Charlie and his party focused their attention on the swimming pool at Moree, where the local council had always barred Aboriginal people. They held a community meeting where the Moree residents agreed to lift the ban.

The students headed on to Boggabilla and Tenterfield, only to hear that Indigenous kids were being refused entry to Moree’s pool again. They unanimously decided to go back to Moree, this time to a much more hostile welcome.

When we got down to the pool I said, ‘I want a ticket for myself and these ten Aboriginal kids behind me. Here’s the money.’ ‘Sorry, darkies not allowed in’Charlie Perkins, excerpt from ‘A B****rd Like Me’

Hundreds of Moree locals, including community leaders, threw eggs and tomatoes at the Freedom Riders. The Moree protest was broadcast across Australia, and under pressure the council again reversed the ban on Aboriginal swimmers.

Today the Freedom Rides are considered a historic protest movement in Australia.

Standing up for what’s right

Of course this is only one small facet of Charlie’s colourful life. He was also a professional soccer player at one stage; he married and raised three children.

The rides were just the start of Charlie’s illustrious lifetime of Aboriginal activism. In the lead up to the 1967 referendum to allow Aboriginal people to be included in censuses, Charlie played a key role in advocating for a yes vote. The constitutional amendment passed – hurrah Australia!

In 1969 Charlie became a public servant, firstly with the Office of Aboriginal Affairs before moving on to a swathe of other influential roles for Aboriginal policy. Another first: in 1981 he became the first Aboriginal person to be a permanent head of a Federal Government department. Throughout his career he was a strong critic of the government’s policies on Indigenous affairs and was well known for his fiery comments – like when he called the Liberal-Country Coalition Government in Western Australia “racist and redneck”.

Charlie was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1987.

An inspiration

I’m so immensely humbled by what Charlie achieved in his lifetime; he’s inspired me to keep standing up for the right thing, especially in our own backyard.

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Sam Hagaman, Communications Coordinator, Amnesty International Australia