Charles Perkins was born in Alice Springs; his mother was Arrente and his father Kalkadoon. He was removed from the Alice Springs Telegraph Station Aboriginal Reserve when he was 10 and educated at St Francis House, a school established by Father Percy Smith in Adelaide to educate Aboriginal boys. He trained initially as a fitter and turner but, being a gifted soccer player, he played professionally for the English club, Everton, then on his return to Australia with the Adelaide Croatian and the Sydney Pan-Hellenic Clubs.
Perkins first attended the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement annual conference in Brisbane in 1961. He spoke with passion about his visit to Mungana reserve where he saw a double standard in action: attractive homes for the white staff and tin shanties for the Aboriginal residents. In 1965 Perkins, one of two Aboriginal students at the University of Sydney (the other was Gary Williams), was keen to find a way to publicise the Aboriginal cause. This led to the formation of Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA) and the decision to organise a bus tour of western New South Wales towns.
About 30 students, led by Perkins, travelled to Walgett, Moree, Kempsey and other towns exposing discrimination in the use of halls, swimming pools, picture theatres and hotels. In a number of towns Aboriginal returned servicemen were only permitted entry to the Returned Service League clubs on Anzac Day. This trip became known as the Freedom Ride and assumed iconic status as the students ensured that they had press coverage for the conflicts which occurred in these towns. Their effective use of television brought the issue of racial discrimination in country towns to national attention.
Perkins’ role in this action propelled him to a position as a national Aboriginal leader and spokesman, a position he held until his death. In the post-referendum period, Charles Perkins was critical of the Federal Council, believing it had not done enough to share power with Aboriginal members. In 1965 he became the manager of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs in Sydney, and in 1969 he moved to Canberra to begin work in the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, which was set up by Prime Minister Harold Holt.
By 1984 Perkins was Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the first Aboriginal Australian to attain such a position in the bureaucracy. In his post-public service life Perkins played key roles on the boards of Aboriginal arts, sport and media organisations. As well he was a member of the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission (ATSIC) and of the Arrente Council of Central Australia. Charlie Perkins was an independent spirit who gave much to the cause of his people, and also to Australian soccer. His independence of mind meant that he was no stranger to controversy.
He was given a state funeral in recognition of his dedicated work for Indigenous Australians. The Freedom Riders was a group of about 30 Sydney University students (including Aboriginal people) who, in February 1965, undertook a 2,300 km bus tour of northern NSW towns investigating and protesting discrimination against Aborigines. Considered by some to be the most significant act in Aboriginal-European relations in the twentieth century, this tour marked the beginning of substantial European awareness of the problems of Aboriginal people. It was led by Charles Perkins and Jim Spigelman, with help from Ted Noffs and Bill Ford.
The Freedom Ride set off on the night of the 12 February 1965. There aim was to campaign, in the country towns of New South Wales, against racial discrimination that was rife in these insular communities. In 1965 Aboriginal people were not classed as citizens. They were dispossessed from the land, which they lived on before immigration. They were forced to all live together on small pockets of land on the edge of towns. These places were called reserves and missions, the living conditions of these places were horrific. There was sub-standard housing, with people living in shanties. There was no plumbing, no electricity and no amenities.
Things were hard for Aboriginals on these reserves and even harder in the towns. In town there was unbearable racism. Aboriginals did not have access to amenities, such as cafes, cinemas, theatres, hotels and swimming pools; things taken for granted today. Not only that, but there was a lot of verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse, just because they were not apart of the majority of race. Within all this social awareness and revolution came Charles Perkins. Charles had enrolled at Sydney University in 1963, and along with Gary Williams, made up the first Aboriginal students to attend Sydney University.
Charles had traveled abroad to play soccer, and in doing so had been exposed to different societal behavior. He believed that his people deserved more, and that racial discrimination was holding them back. Thus Charles decided to confront white Australians about their treatment of Aboriginal people. To do this he decided to duplicate the US Freedom rides, get a bus and travel rural NSW to protest against the segregation that was prevalent. 29 other students set off with Charles on the night of the 12 February. The first two towns they went to were Wellington and Gulargambone.
Here they conducted surveys with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to find out about the living conditions and their points of view. This reaffirmed what they thought the situation was – extremely bad. Though, because of the deficiency of contact and support from the Indigenous community, they did not protest in these towns, instead moving onto the next ones. On the 15th of February the students pulled up in Walgett. They had decided that to confront the racism they would picket the Walgett RSL. The RSL was symbolic. It was in the memory of the past wars, and the ANZAC, that Australia found the deepest sense of ‘mate ship’ and nationhood.
It was high in the Australian culture and psyche. Unfortunately this comradeship did not extend to Aboriginal ex-servicemen. They were only allowed to use the RSL facilities on ANZAC day, if at all. The Walgett RSL protest went extremely well. A cadet reporter for the Herald was in Walgett at the time and took some photos of the protest; finally they had the media coverage that gave them the greater audience the students were hoping for. That night the students were asked to leave the church hall that they were spending the night in.
The bus left Walgett in the middle of the night, but as they were leaving the town a grazier’s son rammed the bus off the road. Luckily no one was injured; there was a journalist on board, making the incident headlines in the Sydney Morning Herald. In Moree they decided to address the segregation of the local swimming pool. The protester had a three point plan here, firstly to protest out the front of the council chambers, then to take Aboriginal children to the pool and lastly to hold a public meeting in the evening. It was a great success with the students feeling that they had desegregated the public pool.
By this stage the Freedom Ride had national and international press coverage. The bus stopped along the east coast at Lismore, Bowraville and Kempsey before returning home to Sydney. With their return there was greater awareness of Indigenous issues rurally. They had successfully stirred up debate on the state of Aboriginal affairs around Australia. With the press coverage they had obtained, came pressure from outside and within Australia for reform. This debate was maintained up the 1967 Referendum. The Freedom Rides have also been credited with helping end the ‘White Australia’ policy.