Charles Perkins: a tribute

19 October 2000

Charlie Perkins was, in many ways, Australia's Mandela. Indeed, had the Australian racial composition, been reversed, as in South Africa, he would have surely fulfilled that role.

Instead, he struggled, right up to his death at the age of 64, for justice and dignity for his people, the Aborigines, and to alert the white majority to the truth that unless they gave back nationhood to the first Australians, they could never claim their own.

Charlie became my friend on a blistering hot day in 1969, when he took me home to Alice Springs. Having grown up in Sydney, I was introduced to an Australia I barely knew existed. We picked up Hetti, his mother, who was waiting at the roadside, beneath a magnificent black hat. A queen of the Arrente people, she had given birth to Charlie on a tabletop in the disused Alice Springs telegraph office in 1936 or 1937; she was never sure which.

We drove out into the red desert, heading for the federal government reserve at Jay Creek, where 300 aboriginal people were corralled in administered squalor, often without water in 40-degree temperatures and proper food or housing.

The children had distended bellies and trachoma, which leads to blindness. This was the Australian gulag. The barbed wire gate was locked, and declared: "No entry, by ministerial order". "What d'you, reckon, mum?" said Charlie. "Do it,' said Hetti, from the back seat. I reversed the car, revved it and smashed through the gate.

"G'day," said Charlie to the white manager, whose ablutions we had interrupted. "Where's your bloody permit?" "Lost it, mate," said Charlie. "Now, how come these children look so bloody sick??"

It was Charlie who did much to change the conditions at Jay Creek, and begin to right Australia's great wrong by bringing the most basic human rights to aboriginal people. On behalf of the most discarded minority of any white colonial country, his trailblazing role was momentous, as was his courage.

Growing up as a mixed-race Aborigine, he was "protected" so that he might be "assimilated" - the bureaucratic language that masked the suffering of the "stolen generation", now recognised as a form of genocide, in which children were taken from their mothers and sent to institutions and as bonded labour. He remembered his grandmother as only a face behind barbed wire. One of his brothers killed himself, which was common among young Aborigines - and still is.

Charlie himself was never stolen, because Hetti never took her eyes off him. "You learned from when you were a kid to stay out of the way of whites," he told me. "Our big treat was being taken to the pictures, sneaking in after the movie had started, and leaving before it ended, so that no one would object to us black kids being there. I grew up never knowing if the goodies or baddies won. Very frustrating."

Charlie was sent to mission school in Adelaide, where he discovered soccer, and, at 16, was spotted by the English first-division club, Everton, which offered to pay his fare to England in the late 1950s. Later, he was invited by Matt Busby for a trial with Manchester United and holds the distinction of turning the great man down.

"You know, I found a kind of racial dignity in England," he told me. "But I was homesick."

Arriving back in Adelaide in 1959, he became only the second Aborigine to graduate from an Australian university. In the mid-1960s, he led white students on freedom rides into the outback of New South Wales, with much the same objective as the freedom riders who began desegregation in the American south. Charlie and his white comrades stood at the turnstile of public swimming pools, and demanded that black children be allowed entry.

In the town of Moree, they were spat at and assaulted, and menaced by a crowd. "I thought we'd had it," he said. "Then this black woman stepped forward and made a courageous speech, in which she pointed to a white man who had gone secretly with black women and fathered black children. 'Tell your wives what you've been doing, you bludgers,' she said. 'Go on, they're just over there. Tell 'em!' That evening, black kids were allowed into the pool for the first time. We had won the first battle."

Charlie went on to win and lose many battles. He was manager of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, which helped run the campaign that produced a resounding "yes" in a 1967 referendum, giving the federal government power to legislate justice for Aboriginals ? a power so often neglected and misused.

He served in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra, rising to permanent secreatry, but co-option never really worked for him. He invariably spoke his mind, calling racist politcians racist; in a society renowned for its outspokeness, but in reality often embarrassed by it, he gathered enemies.

Whenever he came to London, he would call me and say, "Get the media out, mate. There's a demo outside Australia House that will tell the Poms about an Australia that's just like South Africa." Knowing his reply, I would ask how many were going: "Just me".

Even when Sydney University gave him an honorary doctorate recently, he used the occasion to attack the John Howard's government for effectively taking away the common law rights that the high court had said belonged to Aborigines, an action the United Nations has condemned as racist. He would have exploded had he heard Howard this week paying tribute to him through clenched teeth.

Like so many Aborigines, Charlie was burdened by ill-health, although he regarded the gift of a kidney, 28 years ago, as a miracle. Most Aborigines can expect to die in their 40s and 50s. "I beat that," he said, when I last saw him.

He drew lifelong strength from his remarkable wife Eileen, his children Hettie, Rachel and Adam, and his grandchildren. I spoke to him in hospital the day after the Sydney Olympics ended, and he was cursing, typically, the muting of a "shaming campaign" in which he had hoped to participate.

More than most I can think of, Charlie Perkins was a true Australian hero.

Charles Nelson Perkins, aboriginal rights campaigner, born 1936, died 18 October 2000.

Search this site
*/; ?>

The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library