Charles Perkins travelling on the bus from Sydney University to Bondi in 1961

Who is Charles Perkins?

Graduate and leader
Charles Perkins was a civil rights activist who dedicated his life to achieving justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In 1965, as a student at the University of Sydney, Dr Perkins organised a student bus tour around New South Wales to draw attention to the state of Indigenous health, education and housing, and to try and stimulate local action. This was called the Freedom ride, and it highlighted the state of race relations in Australia. It is recognised as one of Australia's most significant civil rights events. 

In 1966, Dr Charles Nelson Perkins AO was the first Aboriginal man to graduate from a university in Australia. 

His achievements included appointments as secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and chairman of the Aboriginal Development Commission and Aboriginal Hostels. Dr Perkins was a fearless spokesman and renowned activist involved in Aboriginal organisations wherever he lived.

Our centre owes its name to Charles Perkins and we share his philosophy of collaboration, inclusivity and continuing to challenge the status quo.

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

Charles Perkins studying at University of Sydney in 1963

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

The last 30 years of his life were made possible by a kidney donation, and this gift made him determined to make a difference for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The portrait of Dr Charles Perkins AO, by Daniel Boyd, recently installed in the Charles Perkins Centre.

A portrait of Dr Charles Perkins AO, by Daniel Boyd, that hangs in the Charles Perkins Centre.

Charles Perkins's life

  • 1936

    Born to Hetti Perkins and Martin Connelly at the Bungalow near Alice Springs.
  • 1945

    Starts education in Adelaide and begins to understand the extent of discrimination against Aboriginal people.
  • 1957

    Plays soccer for Everton, England.
  • 1961

    Captains and coaches for Pan-Hellenic (later known as Sydney Olympic FC) in Sydney, enabling him to finance university studies.
  • 1965

    Organises a group of 30 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 gives him a national profile in the media. Becomes manager of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs in Sydney.
  • May 1966

    Graduates with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Sydney, one of the first Aboriginal people to graduate from university.
  • 1969

    Moves to Canberra to begin work in the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, set up by Prime Minister Harold Holt.
  • 1972

    Joins the Tent Embassy in Canberra, calling for compensation and recognition of Aboriginal land and human rights. Receives a life-saving kidney transplant.
  • 1984

    Becomes the first Aboriginal person to become the Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
  • 1987

    Awarded an Order of Australia medal.
  • 1993

    Elected Commissioner of ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) in Alice Springs.
  • October 2000

    Passes away in Sydney.

Our inspiration

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 people think and act. He sought to lead 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.