Charles Perkins

Australian Gadfly

You learned from when you were a kid to stay out of the way of whites,” Charles Perkins recalled. The colorful, sharp-tongued Australian Aboriginal leader died Oct. 18 at the age of 64. “Australia’s Martin Luther King”  dedicated his life to bringing the plight of Australia’s Aborigines to the public conscience. His constant political arm-wrestling with the political establishment over the decades paved the way for the Aborigine Olympic runner Cathy Freeman to light the torch at the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Sydney this year.

Perkins, one of 11 children, was born on a table in an abandoned telegraph office to a white father and an Aboriginal mother. At the age of 10, Charlie was taken to an Anglican hostel in South Australia where he spent his childhood, the basis for his claim that he was one of the “stolen generation”—children who were taken from their parents and placed in the custody of whites. “That,” he said, “washed the color out of me.”

Known among Aborigines as Uncle Charlie, “the bloke who took up the battle, the tireless freedom fighter, and a pioneer of his people,” according to Toronto’s Globe and Mail, he was among the first Aborigines to earn a university degree and the first to play professional soccer. He paved the way for future indigenous leaders by painstakingly climbing the political ladder to become a top-level civil servant, an advocate of reconciliation long before the term became fashionable. His fight began in 1965, when he led freedom rides into Outback towns to confront segregation and discrimination. From then on, Australia became “a better and fairer place because of him,” writes The Globe and Mail. He ended the ban on Aborigine children swimming at public pools, and later, as head of the Department for Aboriginal Affairs, he was the only Aborigine in Parliament, courageously demanding the most basic human rights for his people.

Perkins, married to a German Lutheran and the father of three, was “a true hero,” writes his friend John Pilger in London’s Guardian, who “went on to win—and lose—many battles.” He was a man “given to a certain vehemence in propounding his views, intelligent and argumentative,” writes The Times of London. “Never the mute, traditional public servant,” according to The Age of Melbourne, “he remained the agitator. He felt that this would make Australia a magic country.” Adds Aden Ridgeway, the only Aborigine in Australia’s Parliament today: “Love him or hate him—no one could help but admire the man for his passion.”