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Wednesday, 18 October, 2000, 18:23 GMT 19:23 UK
Tributes for Aboriginal 'Martin Luther King'

Sydney University honoured Charles Perkins in May
Tributes have been paid to the man some describe as "Australia's Martin Luther King".

He was a freedom fighter

Gatjil Djerrkura, Aboriginal activist
Charles Perkins, 64, who died on Wednesday, was a militant spokesman for Aboriginal human rights.

"We, the original people of this country, never had a place in this society and he was the bloke who took up the battle," said Gatjil Djerrkura, former chairman of the national Aboriginal organisation ATSIC.

"His greatest legacy I would see as similar to Martin Luther King - he was a freedom fighter," Mr Djerrkura said.

Outspoken critic

"Although we didn't always see eye to eye on issues, I have considerable respect for him and the amount of work he undertook in indigenous affairs," said Philip Ruddock, federal minister responsible for reconciliation.

No stranger to controversy throughout his life, Mr Perkins hit the headlines recently when he spoke of cars burning in the streets during the Sydney Olympic Games.

He accused Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, of not doing enough for the Aboriginal people and criticised him for failing to apologise for past injustices.

Mr Perkins was born in 1936 in a shack near the central Australian town of Alice Springs to a white father and Aboriginal mother.

He was an apprentice machinist before enrolling at Sydney University, where the novelty of his black face and his outspoken nature prompted him to activism.

Freedom rides

As one of Australia's leading Aboriginal activists, Mr Perkins came to public attention 35 years ago when he led protests against racism.

Inspired by Martin Luther King's protest marches, Mr Perkins led a "Freedom Ride" in 1965, into outback towns in New South Wales to confront segregation and discrimination.

Along with victories like ending a ban on Aboriginal children swimming at the public baths in the town of Bourke, the trip generated huge publicity and launched his career.

Charles Perkins was the first Aborigine to play soccer professionally and briefly played for the English club Everton before returning to Australia.

He put himself through university and after making his mark as an activist, he was given a top government job dealing with Aboriginal affairs.

He was forced to resign 12 years ago after being accused of mismanagement, although he later cleared his name.

He ended his career acting as a mentor to Aboriginal athletes, although he never backed away from controversy when he thought difficult things needed to be said.

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