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Famous Namesake
Fifty years ago, on February 12 1965, a bus left Sydney University on a two-week tour of rural New South Wales. Aboard was a group of 29 white and black activists, mostly students, who had been inspired by the American civil rights movement of the 1960s to protest in support of Indigenous civil rights.

The bus trip had been organised by Student Action for Aborigines, and their elected president was Charles “Charlie” Perkins, one of only two Indigenous students at Sydney University, and a huge fan of Dr Martin Luther King. The trip was later dubbed the Freedom Ride, after the famous Freedom Riders of the American civil rights movement, who took buses through the southern states in 1961 to protest racial segregation.

Some members of SAFA saw themselves as on a fact-finding mission to collect evidence of discrimination against Aborigines in rural Australia. At the time, many Australians believed racism was a problem which existed only in South Africa, or in the deep south of the United States. But the Australian Freedom Riders found that apartheid and segregation did not just happen overseas.

The SAFA were shocked to find the poor living conditions of most rural Aborigines, and that hospitals, schools, and churches separated black people from white in some country towns, as did milk bars, pubs, and cinemas. In others, Indigenous Australians were barred from entering swimming pools, clubs, or restaurants, while it was routine for them to be refused service in shops and businesses.

The students made several non-violent protests on their bus trip, and also tried to encourage Indigenous Australians to join their protests and demand better treatment. In Moree they helped Aboriginal children to go swimming at the pool in defiance of the race-based ban against them, and were greeted with hostility by white locals, who threw eggs, rotten fruit, and stones at the protesters while spitting at them. However, they were eventually able to persuade the town council to overturn the ban.

One of the students on the Freedom Ride was also an ABC journalist, and the SAFA had ensured plenty of media coverage on their bus trip – they even made the news internationally. With the events of the Freedom Ride appearing on television, radio, and in newspaper articles, and with the harsh injustice against Australian Aborigines exposed, it was no longer possible for white Australians to claim ignorance of racism in their own country.

Charles Perkins graduated from Sydney University with a Bachelor of Arts in 1966, becoming the first Indigenous Australian man to graduate from university. The following year, as manager of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, he headed the campaign to advocate for a Yes vote in the Referendum which allowed Aboriginal people to be counted in censuses, and for parliament to be allowed to introduce legislation specifically for Aboriginal people. The Referendum passed, with more than 90% of Australians voting Yes.

He became a public servant with the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, and in 1981 was appointed Permanent Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs – the first Indigenous Australian to become permanent head of a federal government department. He took leadership roles in the Aboriginal community, and, being a former soccer player, was also appointed to key positions in football administration. He received many awards and honours during his lifetime.

On February 18 this year, his daughter Rachel Perkins was among those who took a bus from Sydney University in a re-enactment for the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Ride. Along the way, they were greeted warmly by the communities they entered, rather than having stones thrown at them or being run off the road, as a sign of how things have changed.

Although this year’s five-day bus trip could celebrate improvements in the lives of Indigenous Australians, such as being counted in the census and having access to the same education as white people, it also highlighted the disadvantages that many Aborigines continue to suffer, such as poverty, unemployment, health issues, higher rates of incarceration, and covert racism. The work of the Freedom Riders is by no means complete.

Name Information
Charles is the French form of the Germanic name Karal, which in modern German is Karl; it comes from the Germanic karlaz, meaning “a free man”. In Anglo-Saxon English karlaz became ceorl, denoting the lowest rank of freemen – a peasant who was neither a slave nor a serf. Ceorl does seem to have been used as a name in Anglo-Saxon England, even by royalty. By modern times, the word had become churl, understood as “a country person, someone of low social status”, and eventually seen as someone rude, loutish and vulgar – exhibiting what we call churlish behaviour.

The name has become widely known chiefly because of Charles Martel, a powerful Frankish military leader who never held the title of king, but nevertheless ruled Francia (modern France) as Duke and Prince, and divided the kingdom of the Franks between his sons, just as kings did. His grandson was Charles I, otherwise known as Charlemagne (Charles the Great), called “The Father of Europe”. He united western Europe and laid the foundations for modern France and Germany; his kingdom is known as the Carolingian Empire.

Little wonder the name Charles was a favourite in the French monarchy; the last one was Charles X, who ruled in the 19th century until being forced to abdicate and go into exile. This means that Charles remained a French royal name for over a thousand years.

The name Charles became used by British royalty due to the Stuart kings, who were Scottish; Scotland has long had ties with France. Charles I wasn’t a terrifically popular king, and fought against his enemies in the English Civil War. Losing that, he refused to accept the parliament’s demand for a constitutional monarchy, and was beheaded for treason. He is regarded as a martyr in Anglicanism.

England became a republic for a few years, until the monarchy was restored with the accession of Charles’ son. Charles II was known as the Merry Monarch for his decadent lifestyle, and although he couldn’t stick the parliament either, he managed to dissolve it without getting his head cut off.

We may get a King Charles III in the near future, although some are of the opinion that Charles is not a suitable name for a modern king. The first two Charleses were anti-parliament and resisted a constitutional monarchy, while Charles II is considered to have lived an “immoral” life that we now expect kings not to emulate. (Maybe the spaniels are also an issue). Prince Charles could rule under any of his names, and a popular belief is that he will choose to take the throne as George VII.

There are quite a number of saints named Charles, and several religious leaders, such as Charles Wesley, who co-founded the Methodist Church, and Charles Spurgeon, a famous Baptist preacher.

Famous people from Australian history include explorer Captain Charles Sturt; naval officer Sir Charles Fremantle, after whom the city of Fremantle is named; Charles La Trobe, first Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria; Sir Charles Menzies, founder of the city of Newcastle; astronomer and pioneering meteorologist Charles Todd; Charles Harpur, our first real poet; Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, World War I flying ace and pioneer aviator; Antarctic explorer Charles Laseron; distinguished film-maker Charles Chauvel; artist Charles Blackman; and brilliant neurosurgeon Charles “Charlie” Teo.

Charles is a classic name which has never left the charts, and barely been out of the Top 100. It was #7 in the 1900s, and reached its lowest point in the 1980s at #116. It was back on the Top 100 by the following decade, and since then its position has been fairly stable. In 2013, it was #81 nationally, #81 in New South Wales, #88 in Victoria, #85 in Queensland, #53 in Tasmania, and #86 in the Australian Capital Territory.

With Charles, you get a handsome, elegant classic and a solid, traditional name. Its history takes you back to European royalty, and Charles still feels regal and noble. However, lest the name feel too stiff and formal, it has a number of relaxed, casual nicknames.

Charlie is a popular name in its own right, while the older-style Chas is familiar from comedian Chas Licciardello. The vintage nickname Chilla, which appears to be uniquely Australian, is perhaps best known from 1950s Olympic athlete “Chilla” Porter. The American nicknames Chip and Chuck are rarely used here, probably because they mean “French fry” and “vomit” respectively in Australian English.

Charles received an excellent approval rating of 82%, making it one of the top-rated names of 2015. People saw the name Charles as strong and handsome (18%), a name with history and substance (17%), and formal and elegant (15%). 16% of people thought the nickname Charlie was cute. However, 9% thought the name was too stuffy and old-fashioned. Only one person was bothered by the linguistic connection to the word churlish, and only one person thought the nickname Charlie was silly and childish.

(Picture shows Charles Perkins on the “Freedom Ride bus trip; photo from National Geographic)