• Charlie Perkins' coffin being carried outside Sydney's town hall. (Supplied:John Paul Janke)Source: Supplied:John Paul Janke
Charles Perkins is remembered as a man who dedicated his life to achieving justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia, 20 years after his state funeral in 2000.
Keira Jenkins

25 Oct 2020 - 1:13 AM  UPDATED 25 Oct 2020 - 1:32 AM

Twenty years ago thousands of mourners gathered in Sydney as a coffin draped in the Aboriginal flag was carried into town hall.

It was the state funeral of Charles Perkins.

On the 25th of October, 2000, friends, family and supporters paid tribute to the Arrente and Kalkadoon man who for decades fought for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

NACCHO CEO and Dr Perkins' niece, Pat Turner, read a eulogy to a crowd of thousands.

“He held a mirror in front of this country and exposed the discrimination and racism our people endured,” she said.

"He was determined to change that. He wanted Australia to embrace our Arrernte heritage and he believed that until then Australia would be a country without a soul.

"He showed us the way. We all know there is much unfinished business.

"The future is in our hands."

Ngadjuri man and activist, Vince Copley, told the story of when he and Dr Perkins went to Malaysia.

"He came to me one day in Adelaide and said 'come on, Cop, we're going to Kuala Lumpur.' And I said, 'what are we going for?'"

"He said, 'well there's a gentleman in Kuala Lumpur named Muhammed Ali who we're going to try to entice to come back as an inspiration to our people here in Australia.'

"And the time came when it was nearly time to go home. That night a message came down and said that we were to meet him at 6 o'clock in the morning.

"So we jumped up early, went into the room and there was the great man laying on the rubbing down table.

"Muhammed Ali jumped up and said, 'Where's the cheque book, where's the cheque book?' and with that, of course, as most people know - the way our Charlie can become very upset very quickly - he told Mr Ali where to shove his cheque book and we went to walk for the door and Mr Ali yelled out, 'Stop 'em'.

"And from that time we were allowed access at any time that we wanted to into his room. And I just hope that the reason that he came to Australia later was because of Charlie's effort and his courage.”

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser remembered working with Dr Perkins during his time in public office.

"In a sense at both the beginning and the end of his public life he recognised that it was sometimes necessary to appear unreasonable to be heard," Mr Fraser said.

"To know and to work with Charles was to know that at times there would be disagreements and difficulty. But that was because we, as a nation, have real difficulty in dealing successfully with the problems about which he spoke and for the resolution of which he worked.

"Charles Perkins would take comfort from the fact that there are more and more people each day waiting with impatience for the time when all of us can say, as Australians, we have faced our past honestly - we can now work together to build a better and a more credible nation."

Dr Perkins was well known for leading the 'freedom rides' through country NSW, drawing attention to racism and segregation Aboriginal people faced in Australia in the 1960s, but his achievements spanned much further.

He was one of the first Aboriginal people to complete a university degree in Australia, the first to head a government department, and one of the first to play professional soccer.

He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1987 and was instrumental in setting up the Tent Embassy in Canberra.

After the town hall ceremony, Dr Perkins' coffin was carried to Sydney Opera House for a wake, the crowd snaking its way through the city towards the harbour.

Dr Perkins is still remembered as a man who dedicated his life to achieving justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia, a renowned activist, fearless spokesperson; a man who loved his culture and his family.

Revisit the Freedom Ride on Living Black
The latest episode of Living Black returns viewers to the journey made 50 years ago by a group of University students led by Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins to expose racism and prejudice.
Awaken: Freedom not Frustration
In 1965 Charles Perkins led a group of students from Sydney University on journey known as the Freedom Rides.