Columbia, SC — It was jarring enough that one of the first images on TV after Nelson Mandela’s death was a clip of Ronald Reagan in 1990 saying Mandela should be included in talks about the future of South Africa. Reagan had fought economic sanctions against the government just four years earlier, considering Mandela a terrorist. In that, he was joined by hardliners such as Sen. Strom Thurmond and Congressmen Carroll Campbell and Tommy Hartnett.
Worse was to see that the image South Carolina offered the world after Nelson Mandela’s death was a 1998 picture of a 95-year-old Strom Thurmond holding up Mandela’s arm as though he’d just won a prizefight.
It would have been more accurate to post a picture of Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, who co-sponsored the failed 1985 anti-apartheid bill but succeeded in having an anti-apartheid plank added to the Democrats’ platform in 1984 and 1988. Congressmen Robin Tallon and Butler Derrick, both from the Pee Dee, also supported legislative action against South Africa.
In fact, a lot happened in the fight against apartheid that Columbia and South Carolina can be proud of.
There were marches and rallies at the State House and the Friday pickets in front of the USC Educational Foundation offices and the Peace Center’s legal maneuvers to force the university to disclose and withdraw its holdings with companies that did business with South Africa. I believe that effort was the beginning of the end for then-President James Holderman, who resigned in 1990 under fire over his hidden financial dealings.
Students from Benedict, USC, S.C. State, College of Charleston and many other campuses took part. At one point, members of the USC Free South Africa Alliance built and occupied a shanty in front of the Russell House in condemnation of poor South Africans’ bantustan living conditions.
I’m sure that somewhere there are pictures of Christian Action Council members doing the weekly pickets at what used to be the C&S Bank on Sumter Street to force it to stop selling the South African gold Kruggerrand coins. The picketers won.
Dr. William F. Gibson of Greenville, then state president and national chairman of the NAACP, orchestrated a national post-card campaign in support of the federal legislation, and in 1985, the Columbia City Council unanimously approved Councilman Luther Battiste’s measure to bar any city investments that would benefit or encourage the South African government. Councilman Rudy Barnes said the resolution “sends the signal to politicians that we must distance ourselves from this type of oppression.” Another councilman, William Outzs, called the vote “further indication of this city’s support for human rights.”
A year later, then-state Treasurer Grady L. Patterson withdrew $43 million in state investments from companies doing business in South Africa.
When Reagan came to Columbia in 1986 to do a fundraiser for Campbell’s gubernatorial bid, he was met by a few hundred protesters led by Nelson Rivers, then executive director of the state NAACP, members of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, Brett Bursey and the Grassroots Organizing Workshop, the Carolina Peace Resource Center and others. There were many colorful signs that day, but the most memorable one quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who, when asked during his visit to the University of South Carolina about Reagan’s support of the South African government, said: “You’re the pits. Go to hell.” Tutu warned that “history would judge Reagan harshly,” a message repeated by his daughter Mpho when she spoke later that year at the College of Charleston.
There’s an activist history yet to be written. When it is, it will include such familiar names as Modjeska Simkins and some not-so-familiar ones such as the Rev. Winston Lawson, who, as pastor at Ladson Presbyterian Church, opened his sanctuary to countless meetings and rallies.
There are lots of heroic people who should be highlighted in our state’s anti-apartheid efforts. They are “part of the collective,” which is how Mandela said he wanted to be remembered. Doubtless, Thurmond looms large in our state’s history. Like Mandela, it seems that everyone met him. Still, he isn’t the whole of our history. And there’s always room for more.
Mr. Gray is the author of “Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics”; contact him at email@example.com.