Dr Charles Nelson Perrurle Perkins AO (1936-2000), Arrernte and Kalkadoon people


Charles Perkins studying at University of Sydney, 1963 (Photo credit: Robert McFarlane)

Born in 1936 to Hetti Perkins and Martin Connelly at the Bungalow near Alice Springs, Charles Nelson Perkins dedicated his life to achieving justice for Indigenous Australians. His achievements included appointments as secretary, Department of Aboriginal Affairs and chairman, Aboriginal Development Commission and Aboriginal Hostels Ltd. Charles was actively involved in Indigenous organisations wherever he lived. He was elected ATSIC Commissioner in both Alice Springs and Sydney and in 1987, he was awarded the Order of Australia.

From 1945, Charles was educated in Adelaide and during this time, he began to understand the extent of discrimination against Aboriginal people. In 1957, his outstanding soccer skills led Charles to play for Everton, England. On his return to Australia, he captained and coached for Pan-Hellenic in Sydney, enabling him to finance his way through university.
Charles graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Sydney in May 1966; one of the first Indigenous Australians to graduate from university. He was then instrumental in establishing the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs in Sydney.

In the summer of 1965, Charles organised a group of thirty students to travel to Walgett, Moree, Bowraville and Kempsey to protest against discrimination and poor living conditions. Known as the ‘Freedom Ride’, this unprecedented protest gave him a national profile in the media.

In 1972, he joined the Tent Embassy in Canberra, calling for compensation and recognition of Aboriginal land and human rights. It was also in this year that Charles received a life-saving kidney transplant.

Charles was a renowned activist and a fearless spokesman. The last 30 years of his life were made possible by the kidney donation and this gift made him determined to make a difference for Indigenous people.

Later in life, Charles proudly fulfilled his cultural obligations with his passage through law with his people, the Eastern Arrernte, before passing away in Sydney on 18 October 2000.

Our inspiration

Our centre owes its name to one of the University of Sydney’s most revered alumni. Dr Charles Nelson Perkins AO was the first Aboriginal man to graduate from a university in Australia, in 1966.

Charles Perkins changed the lives of many Australians. He worked across boundaries to create new opportunities, and reached beyond traditional limitations to find solutions. He showed that new partnerships and ideas could change the way Australians think and act. He sought to lead new collaborations in situations where a single person or agency could not deliver the desired result.

The Charles Perkins Centre shares his philosophy. We are challenging old ways of thinking and integrating ideas from multiple streams of knowledge. We are looking for solutions beyond traditional boundaries, to provide new hope for the health of our nation.