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Charles Perkins
Charles Perkins talking with Aboriginal residents at Moree, February 1965 - The Tribune (20153364632) (cropped).jpg
at Moree, February 1965
Born (1936-06-16)16 June 1936
Died 19 October 2000(2000-10-19) (aged 64)
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, (16 June 1936 – 19 October 2000) was an Australian activist and Aboriginal leader. He was also a professional football player.

Perkins grew up in Alice Springs. His mother was Arrernte, and his father was Kalkadoon. He later moved to Sydney, and graduated from the University of Sydney in 1965. He was the first indigenous Australian to graduate from a university.

Perkins campaigned for Aboriginal land rights. In 1965, he was an important person in the Freedom Ride campaign, which aimed to raise public awareness of the standards of living, literacy and health conditions among the Aboriginal population. The group was famous for publicising acts of discrimination.

Perkins was also important in the campaign for the referendum in 1967, which allowed Aboriginal people to be counted in censuses, and parliament to make special laws specifically for Aboriginal people. From 1969, Perkins worked as a public servant in the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. He was made permanent secretary of this department in 1981, which made him the first Aboriginal to become the permanent head of a federal government department. He served as secretary until 1988.

Throughout his career he was a strident critic of Australian Government policies on Indigenous affairs and was renowned for his fiery comments.

He served as chair of the Arrernte Council of Central Australia from 1991 until 2000.

In 1993 Perkins joined the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), and was elected deputy chair in 1994, serving until he resigned in 1995 to become a consultant to the Australian Sports Commission.

Perkins died in October 2000 of kidney failure. He was given a state funeral. His body was returned to Alice Springs a week after his death.


Perkins was awarded Jaycees Young Man of the Year in 1966, and NAIDOC Aboriginal of the Year in 1993.

He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours in 1987, for services to Aboriginal welfare.

He was inducted into the Football Federation Australia Football Hall of Fame for services as a player, coach and administrator in 2000.

In 1998 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters by the University of Western Sydney, and 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.

John Farquharson wrote in his obituary that Perkins "was perhaps not only the most influential Aborigine of modern times, but also must be numbered among the outstanding Australians of the century".

Death and legacy

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.

The Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, designed in 2012 and opened in June 2014, was named in honour of Perkins.

In 2013 Australia Post issued a series of postage stamps featuring five eminent Indigenous rights campaigners, including Perkins, Shirley Smith, Neville Bonner, Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Eddie Mabo.

In the arts

There are several books about Perkins, and artist Bill Leak painted a portrait of him.

In film

  • Freedom Ride (1993) is an episode of four-part documentary called Blood Brothers by Rachel Perkins and Ned R. Lander.
  • Fire Talker (2009) by Ivan Sen uses archival footage from the early 1960s to 2001 to build an intimate portrait of Perkins' life.
  • Remembering Charlie Perkins (2009), in which Gordon Briscoe recalls his friend Perkins' fight for equality and liberty, in the Dr Charles Perkins Memorial Oration.
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