Remembering Reagan’s Record on Civil Rights and the South African Freedom Struggle

Remembering Reagan’s Record on Civil Rights and the South African Freedom Struggle

Remembering Reagan’s Record on Civil Rights and the South African Freedom Struggle

To Ronald Reagan, the apartheid regime in South Africa was a valuable cold war ally.


Sentimental 100th birthday tributes to Ronald Reagan rolling out this month would have us believe that the “Great Communicator” led America into a bright conservative era of prosperity, ended the cold war by getting tough with the Soviets and restored America’s confidence by flexing its military muscles abroad and reining in the welfare state at home.

But in addition to overlooking the dramatic increase in homelessness that occurred on Reagan’s watch, never mind the covert counter-revolutionary operations in Central America, promoters of Reagan nostalgia consistently ignore his record on race, civil rights, and South Africa. There, Reagan’s legacy is abysmal.

Early in his political career Reagan opposed every major piece of civil rights legislation adopted by Congress, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. And even if one tries to explain away this opposition on the grounds that it came early in the history of the civil rights movement or was motivated by a misplaced reluctance to empower the federal government, Reagan’s civil rights record during his presidency is tough to justify. As President, Reagan supported tax breaks for schools that discriminated on the basis of race, opposed the extension of the Voting Rights Act, vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act and decimated the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). When you combine Reagan’s political record with his symbolic stance on race issues—his deriding welfare recipients as “welfare queens,” his employing “states rights” rhetoric in the same county where in 1964 three of the most infamous murders of civil rights workers occurred, his initial opposition to establish a national holiday to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.—the Reagan legacy begins to lose much of its luster.

The part of the Reagan record that most impacted our generation of student activists during the 1980s was his refusal to support sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Evoking memories of America’s own Jim Crow past, images of South Africa’s police and military assaulting black civil rights activists sparked outrage on American campuses. Because American companies supplied vehicles and other technology used for these brutal attacks, students throughout the country called for the universities they attended to divest from companies that held investments in South Africa and helped to prop up the regime.

From 1984 to 1986, the anti-apartheid movement erupted across the country. In many cases, mass protests on college campuses were the most visible part of the movement. For a time, Reagan was as unmoved by the campus protests as he was by the brutality of the South African government. Reagan ascended to the White House embracing white South Africa as a valuable cold war ally, asking CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, “Can we abandon a country that has stood by us in every war we’ve fought, a country that’s strategically essential to the free world?” In Reagan’s first term the White House violated the UN arms embargo on South Africa, vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have imposed sanctions on the apartheid regime and approved a $1.1 billion IMF loan to South Africa. The administration insisted that befriending the apartheid regime via a “constructive engagement” would give the United States more leverage in South Africa than would sanctions, a claim that proved delusional.

Soon after his resounding re-election victory in 1984, Reagan’s “constructive engagement” policy was challenged by an expected upsurge in protest against the apartheid regime. In South Africa the newly formed United Democratic Front, led by clergymen such as the Reverend Desmond Tutu and Allan Beosak, capitalized on reforms enacted in the same year, which for the first time granted “coloureds”—the South African term for those of mixed race—the right to vote in local elections. The antiapartheid movement in South Africa refused to be co-opted by this minor step toward liberalization—which still left South Africa’s 23 million blacks disenfranchised—and called for a boycott of elections and international sanctions on the regime.

The upsurge in political resistance within South Africa ignited a broad-based movement in the United States for sanctions against South Africa. Prominent African-American civil rights leaders staged a sit-in at the South African embassy in Washington, where in November 1984, kicking off a civil disobedience campaign that involved twenty-three members of Congress, such celebrities as Arthur Ashe, Stevie Wonder and Amy Carter, and many grassroots activists. The murder of at least nineteen unarmed protesters by South African police at a march commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre sparked further outrage and activism, culminating in a national day of protest on April 4, 1985, the seventeenth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. On that day 4,000 marched on the South African embassy and fifty-eight were arrested in a sit-in. Reagan evoked outrage in the movement by suggesting that at the Sharpeville memorial the “rioters”—who were in fact nonviolent—had provoked the violence.

At this point the antiapartheid movement began to make a major impact on America’s college campuses. On day of the Washington march, Columbia students sat outside the main entrance of Hamilton Hall, vowing to stay until the university divested all of its holdings in companies doing business in South Africa. The Columbia protest lasted three weeks and helped inspire similar protests on some sixty campuses in the spring semesters of 1985. The largest occurred at UC Berkeley, where the arrest of around 160 protesters at Sproul Hall prompted some 10,000 students to join a one-day strike and class boycott in a show of support. More than a thousand Cornell students were arrested in a series of divestment sit-ins.

The anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s was the largest national upsurge of campus civil disobedience since the 1960s. The 1985–86 academic year saw yet more campus protest, with divestment demonstrations spreading to more than 100 colleges and universities. Divestment protesters from Columbia to Berkeley constructed shabby huts and placed them on their campuses to symbolize their solidarity with South African blacks.

The Free South Africa movement achieved stunning successes both on campus and off. Leading US universities, including the University of California, though initially resistant to divestment, did sever their financial connections to companies that did business in South Africa, as did major cities. Congress sided with the movement too, voting in June 1986 for comprehensive sanctions against South Africa, which included a trade embargo and divestment.

And where was Ronald Reagan in all this? On September 25, 1986, he vetoed the sanctions bill. But by this time the antiapartheid movement’s influence was so strong that even the president’s own party was embarrassed by Reagan’s refusal to stand up to South Africa. Indiana Republican Richard Lugar pleaded with Reagan to get “on the right side of history” by supporting sanctions. Such Republican dissent helped make possible Congress’s overwhelming 78–21 vote to override Reagan’s veto in October 1986. This marked the first time in Reagan’s White House years that a presidential foreign policy veto had been overturned. The vote attested to how out of touch Reagan was with the struggle for racial justice, a struggle that the Free South Africa movement had helped to popularize in the United States.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, the divestment struggle involved not one American president but two. While Reagan had opposed divestment, a college student at Occidental College by the name of Barack Obama had been involved in the wave of campus protests that supported it. Back then he connected with the desire of ordinary people for democratic rights. With the recent revolt in Egypt the United States faces a similar choice between gradualism and the demand for democracy now that Reagan faced in the 1980s. Obama, who has at various points praised Reagan’s leadership style, seems to be leaning toward gradualism on the question of Egyptian democracy. He would do well to heed the words he uttered as a college student at an antiapartheid rally during the Reagan era: “It’s happening an ocean away. But it’s a struggle that touches each and every one of us…. A struggle that demands we choose sides…. It’s a choice between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and injustice. Between commitment and indifference. A choice between right and wrong…”

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