Charlie Perkins is a name familiar to many, but his acts lesser so. In fact, the man literally spent his life attempting to push us ever closer to equality. A true icon.
We all know Charles Perkins, or know of him. He is the man who started at the head of the Freedom Rides and became the most senior Aboriginal bureaucrat this country has ever had. We know that when he died in 2000, thousands flocked the streets for his funeral, which turned into an impromptu demonstration for Aboriginal rights. But it was his struggle to stay sane throughout that is his most impressive feat. To not get so angry, scared or upset that you can’t function anymore. It is because of that, and for what he did to force Australia out of the racist Middle Ages, that I want to celebrate him as maverick number 20.
Charles Nelson Perkins was born in 1936, on a table at the old telegraph station at Alice Springs. It was a rough area, especially for Arrernte people like his maternal side of the family. Before he was born, his mother witnessed regular “shooting parties” by the white station owners, who entertained themselves by hunting Aboriginal people. Police would also often ride into the tribe, demanding girls for sex. Charlie’s mother was one of those girls once, chained to a tree until they were done with her. When Charlie was little, the area turned into a mission station called The Bungalow, where his mother worked as a cook. Because Charlie’s father was Irish (and absent), the boy was not allowed to communicate with his full-blood grandmother, who was kept behind a wire fence. Only on Saturday afternoon were the Aboriginal people allowed to leave the mission, and only if they had a pass and were back before dark. But, Charlie would later say, his mother raised him right: “She was a principled person, who taught her kids to always speak your mind.” It was a lesson well learnt and practiced throughout his life.
When he was ten years old, his mother decided that he needed more education. The only way to do that was send him to boarding school in Adelaide, run by the Christian Brothers. St Francis House was most of all a lesson in rejection. The “niggers” were often whipped, not allowed to use the front gate when there were white visitors, chased down the street, never invited to a party or to anybody’s home. Charlie started to feel something was wrong with him, especially when they threw him out at age 15, with nothing but a suitcase. “‘We don’t want you here,’ they said. ‘You eat too much and cause too much trouble.’ I was on the street at a time that every Aboriginal person needed a passbook that gave you permission to be outside of your mission. This was not South Africa, mind you, this was Australia.” He enrolled in an apprenticeship to become a fitter and turner and lived in a boarding house that mostly harboured what were then called “New Australians”, migrants from Southern European countries. Charlie felt at home with these people, also outsiders, who were the only ones who didn’t call him “Abo boy” and treated him like a human being. They started to play soccer and soon it was clear that he was a natural at it. So much so that in 1957, English Premier League club Everton offered him a place in their team.
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England was an eye-opener. It was much less racist than Australia, and people were genuinely interested in him. But one day he played a soccer match at Oxford University and had an epiphany. He wanted, no needed, to go back home, get an education and try and change the way Aboriginal people were treated in Australia. If Britain could deal with non-white people as people, then surely Australia could too. In 1960 he was back in Adelaide, coaching a Croatian soccer team and preparing to matriculate.
At a soccer function, he met Eileen Munchenberg, the descendant of German Lutheran migrants. Both families had to get used to the idea of a mixed-colour marriage, but Eileen turned out to be a partner for life. Not long after the wedding, the couple moved to Sydney, where Charles had been awarded a scholarship to study at Sydney University. Political science, because he wanted “to investigate the institutions of government: how they operate, who operates them and how you can run an Aboriginal organisation as a pressure group.”
He didn’t wait for his research to be completed, though. Especially 1965 was a busy year. First of all, he founded the Student Action for Aborigines group and took them on a bus through rural Australia. They would become known as the Freedom Rides and turn Charlie into a household name. The students visited places like Walgett, Moree and Kempsey, where segregation was a normal way of life. Aboriginal people were not allowed in the local swimming pools, clothes shops, hotels, cafes, restaurants, cinemas. Charles had been good at organising media coverage, and the passive resistance of the students, inspired by the American civil rights movement and people like Martin Luther King, made an impression on people watching television and reading the paper in less racist parts of Australia. What also caused some concern was the way the locals reacted to the students. On their way out of Walgett, the bus was pushed off the road by a truck, they were forced to leave Moree under a hail of eggs and shouts that “the only good Abo is a dead Abo” and the good white folks of Kempsey could be heard chanting “string ‘em up.” It was ugly and now it was out in the open. Charlie Perkins had managed to get a national audience to face up to Australia’s racism. That had made him a spokesperson, but also “a bastard.” Not that he was too fussed with what white Australia thought of him. “The Freedom Rides were not for the white people, but to tell Aboriginal people that they didn’t have to be second class. I wanted to say: ‘don’t cop shit when you don’t have to’. And I think they listened.”
It came to a head when Charlie told a journalist that the WA government consisted of “rednecks and racists” and should “be hung for what they’ve done to Aboriginal people.”
Barely back in Sydney and studying for his last exams, Charlie became even more famous when he intervened in the deportation of a 6-year old Indian Fijian girl called Nancy Prasad. We were still at the height of the White Australia Policy and no exceptions were made, not even for children. But on the day of her deportation, Charlie and some friends went to the airport and kidnapped her. He felt that it was his “moral obligation” to do something, because Nancy and Aboriginal people had the “colour question” in common. The little girl was thrown out of the country the day after anyway, but those 24 hours had given Charlie enough time to make his point. It would take five years and a new government, but finally, Nancy would be allowed back into Australia in 1970. In the meantime, Charlie somehow managed to finish his exams and become the first Aboriginal man to get a university degree. He graduated with a proud family by his side and a baby in arms (Hetti, now an art curator and writer. There is also Adam, an accountant, and Rachel, film director and screenwriter).
But then the real difficulties started. He got a job managing the NSW Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs. It was important work, giving practical help to Aboriginal people in need. Housing, education, living conditions, work, land rights: everything was still in dire straits and there was so, so much to do. It was also time to try and give some pride and dignity back to people, which is why Charlie put a lot of energy into the 1967 Referendum. But it was never enough, and after the good result, he felt he needed some inspiration and a pick-me-up, so he travelled to the USA and Canada to talk to people like Jesse Jackson and Muhammed Ali. They told him to “go for it”, not take a backseat and ask for what he wanted. One of the other people he met in the States was PM Harold Holt, who told him to write down a proposal for change. In Charlie’s mind, this meant self-determination, federal solutions and national land rights legislation. In 1967 Holt gave him part of what he wanted: the first Office of Aboriginal Affairs, run by Charlie himself.
Unfortunately, not long after, Harold Holt disappeared into the waters off Cheviot Beach and John Gorton took over. Soon, the problems started.
Charlie was not used to Canberra procedure and from the beginning, he flaunted the rules of official bureaucracy that dictate who can talk, when you can talk, what you can say and how you can say it. He got into all manner of fights and the more he did for Aboriginal people, and the more publicity he got for that, the worse it got. In 1971 there was an extra shock when he was diagnosed with collapsed kidneys. Three days a week, for ten hours a day, he was on dialysis, getting weaker by the moment, sometimes barely able to drive to work. But drive to work he did and after a year it all became a little easier when he got a transplant. It gave him “the gift of life” – he “rejoined the world” and decided “never to be scared of the bastards again.” For a while, things were looking up. Whitlam came to power and put Charlie in charge of a new Department of Aboriginal Affairs. He was now in direct contact with the Minister and even with the PM. In 1973 he felt it even necessary to explain on television that Australians shouldn’t think that “everything is OK with Aboriginal people because I am where I am. That is a load of crap. There is no real future for my people. I’m so much of an exception it’s not funny.”
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It wasn’t particularly language Canberra wanted to hear from a highly placed bureaucrat and more and more people started to push back. In the end, it came to a head when Charlie told a journalist that the WA government consisted of “rednecks and racists” and should “be hung for what they’ve done to Aboriginal people.” He was suspended without pay for a year. The official reason was not, of course, that he was a pain in the neck, but that he had engaged in “improper conduct”: stealing and something called “maladministration”. Eight investigations came up with absolutely nothing, but Charlie felt ashamed and deflated and took his family back to Alice Springs to regenerate.
During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s these skirmishes kept on happening. Charles remained a public servant in one way or another, but also always an activist. In 1982, for example, at the eve of the Brisbane Commonwealth Games, he called Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the Queensland Premier, a “fascist” and advised the Queen who was about the open proceedings to “please go home.” When John Howard told him in the 1990s to shut up and behave like a proper bureaucrat, Charlie said he was a “racist and a dog” for not apologising for historic wrongs or wanting to engage in making things right between black and white in the future. “The conscience of the nation will never rest in peace,” he predicted. It got him sacked again, but this time he was beyond caring. On many trips back to Alice Springs he had been initiated, which gave him the strength, he said, to carry on.
True to form, Charles Perkins went out in style. Just before his death in 2000, he participated in the Reconciliation Walk across Sydney’s Harbour Bridge. He was in a golf buggy, because his kidneys had packed it in and his veins were wasting away. But his anger and refusal to mince his words were still there. Interviewed by a BBC journalist in the lead-up to the Olympic Games he warned Brits to stay away from the event because Aboriginal people had enough and were ready for some serious action. “It’s ‘burn, baby, burn’ from now on,” he said, causing the last outrage of his life.
A few weeks later he was dead, mourned by thousands who came out to pay their last respects. His memorial combined the same difficult-to-blend factors Charlie had tried to fuse during his lifetime: it was a state funeral, but the people walking behind the coffin draped with the Aboriginal flag were angry as well as sad. The man they remembered had given his life, “24/7”, as he himself said, to the nation and helped it make enormous strides. But so much still needed to be done, and now he wasn’t there anymore to guide them. Another maverick lost. Another debt that needed to be repaid.