Let's Recall the Americans Who Supported Mandela

This week we celebrate the life and courage of Nelson Mandela.

But let’s also pause to remember and salute all of the many men and women, right here in the United States, who fought against apartheid in South Africa.

Let’s remember Randall Robinson, Sylvia Hill and Cecelie Counts, co-founders of the “Free South Africa Movement” in the United States.

This movement’s big contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle began the day before Thanksgiving in 1984 when Robinson, Mary Frances Berry and civil rights movement stalwart Walter Fauntroy were arrested for refusing to leave the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C., in protest over the country’s racial policies.

Following their well-publicized arrests, a collective of people began to appear each day at the embassy to be arrested.

The local chapter of AFL-CIO joined the cause and sent buses of members to the embassy to protest regularly.

Rosa Parks was arrested at the embassy, as was Amy Carter, daughter of former President Jimmy Carter.

Celebrities such as Stevie Wonder and boxer Larry Holmes also joined the arrest protest, along with many others, including Eleanor Holmes Norton, who now represents Washington, D.C., in Congress.

Let’s also salute the members of Congress who fought to pass comprehensive economic sanctions against South Africa despite President Reagan’s resistance to sanctions and his support of the regime.

In 1986, the U.S. Congress repeatedly sought to impose sanctions on South Africa. Eventually, both chambers passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. Reagan vetoed the bill. However, Congress overrode Reagan’s veto, imposing the harsh sanctions on the government of South Africa that helped bring down apartheid once and for all.

Let’s also salute the many college students who protested apartheid and advocated for their schools to divest their financial holdings from South Africa. Through such pressure, universities across the United States began divesting as early as the 1970s.

And finally let’s salute the actors and athletes who, at some cost, honored the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa.

In 1983, tennis legend Arthur Ashe, Harry Belafonte, Tony Randall, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and Gregory Hines formed the organization Artists United Against Apartheid. They urged their colleagues not to perform in South Africa or to visit for cultural exchange. The boycott resulted in more isolation for the regime.

There are, of course, countless others who contributed in big and small ways to the anti-apartheid struggle in the United States.

There are poets who wrote poems, singers who sang songs and lawyers who organized and assisted political prisoners in South Africa with money and their legal talents.

The names are too numerous to list here. But as we celebrate the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, it’s worth also celebrating the collective effort of so many people who helped fight the evil of racial oppression a continent away and won.

Brian Gilmore is a poet and public interest lawyer. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org. Copyright Brian Gilmore.