Divestment for Humanity: The Anti-Apartheid Movement at the University of Michigan

In Focus: A Statement from Alan Wald

Alan Wald, a UM professor and prominent leader in the Ann Arbor movement, reccounts in 2015 how his involvement in other social movements made his involvement in the anti-apartheid movement natural, 

The first and last part of this question interlink nicely and are important. In short, I was a committed and experienced radical activist long before I came to U-M; when I arrived at U-M in 1975, there was already an anti-apartheid movement functioning that was comprised of people with backgrounds somewhat like my own, so it was kind of like a meeting of like-minded people.  No doubt new and less experienced forces were drawn in, but there was a solid core of experienced activists in place at the center. 

More specifically, I was alienated and restless in high school (1960-64), not really political but certainly drawn to the civil rights movement and non-conformism (the Beats, Existentialists, Jazz musicians). My first year at Antioch College (1964-69), I listened to lots of political arguments, asked questions, read a great deal, and hung around radicals—to whom I seemed naturally drawn. In my second year I joined SDS and became very active around anti-racism, the Vietnam war, student rights. I wrote for the SDS newsletter and was in some hair-raising demonstrations in southern Ohio. In late 1965-66 I was a member of an SDS community organizing project in Cleveland, ERAP (Economic Research and Action Project), which had a big impact on me—we were trying to organize the poor white and Black community to demand welfare rights, etc. In the summer of 1967 I traveled abroad with the idea of roaming around Western Europe and North Africa to gather material for creative writing; but by the fall I was attending a college for workingmen in Birmingham, England, and totally drawn into Marxist/socialist circles. I participated in the famous Grosvenor Square demonstration in October 1967 called by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (I was part of the “Stop It” committee—US citizens in England). I returned to Antioch in December 1967 and began attending meetings of the main socialist group, Young Socialist Alliance (YSA). I joined after several months of candidacy and was active in just about everything imaginable. This continued after I moved to Berkeley in July 1969 to work on a Ph D in English, and that fall I joined the Socialist Workers Party, running for Berkeley City Council on the SWP ticket in April 1971.

When I came to Ann Arbor I was still in the Socialist Workers Party, but mainly writing literary articles for its journal, going to Detroit to attend events, and giving classes in socialism to students in a local chapter of the Young Socialist Alliance. I actually don’t recall any SWP supervision of my political activities here or any collaboration or even much interest from Detroit. It is likely that I was drifting away because the group was turning inward and going in a new direction, which led to my separation within a few years. In any event, I and my late wife (who had returned to school to get a nursing degree at U-M) became immediately involved in Latin American solidarity activity on campus, and just about everything else that was radical.  We were almost immediately in contact with the faculty member who was central to the anti-apartheid movement-- Political Science Professor Joel Samoff, whom I had actually known from a distance back at Antioch.  (He was an older student more or less in charge of our dorm.) 

Joel was part of the main group, which was called the Washtenaw County Coalition Against Apartheid (WCCAA). As you certainly know, it was the struggles in South Africa against apartheid that gave rise to the demands for boycotts and divestment, and I had been aware of these struggles from the time I entered college. At U-M, an African American graduate student named Jemadari Kamara and an undergraduate (not African American) named Heide Gottfried were the two individuals with whom I had the most contact, besides Samoff. They seemed experienced, and many of the others I encountered had been involved in Marxist study groups, FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee), People’s Action Coalition, Latin American solidarity, and so on. One had the feeling that these movements in the late 1970s were very much tied into the earlier movements from the 1960s—part of the same tradition with some of the same people. In addition, a South African professor at Northwestern University, Dennis Brutus, kept in touch with us and integrated us into regional activities. He, too, had a long political history. 

 To be active in the anti-apartheid movement wasn’t a choice for me. It seemed natural and necessary, and I wanted to do it. In addition to the specific issue of racial/class oppression in South Africa, I felt the struggle had a connection to racism in the US and the concerns of the radical movement in general. At no time did it seem like a burden, problem, or distraction. I received wonderful inspiration and education from the experience. It seemed as if the best students (graduate and undergraduate) and the most admirable faculty were involved.