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

Early U.S. Responses

Early Anti-Apartheid Activism in the U.S. 

Encouraged by African leaders within and outside South Africa, an international campaign to combat apartheid began to form, spurring initiatives such as boycotts of South African goods and sports teams, in order to shame and weaken the apartheid regime.  Deep connections also existed between African liberation movements and civil rights organizations in the United States. The African National Congress, the leading South African liberation organization, modeled aspects of its charter on the founding principles of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  Prominent African American figures such as Paul Robeson attributed their radicalization to contact with African liberation leaders, including Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya.

ACOA pamphlet detailing

their work in the late 1950s

ACOA announces Africa

Freedom Day, 1960

Such trans-Atlantic ties led to the formation of the first major U.S. group primarily devoted to the anti-apartheid campaign, the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), in 1953. This organization's founders, including Robeson and other civil rights leaders, emphasized their "moral concern that America should fulfill our responsibilities in Africa by helping the emergence of democratic, self-governing states free from racialism, poverty, and ignorance." The ACOA led the American wing of the growing international movement against apartheid for the next two decades. In the mid-1960s, the ACOA's Committee of Conscience Against South African Apartheid signalled a shift in the U.S. movement toward the strategy of targeting South Africa's international economic support system, especially by protesting American banks that invested in the apartheid regime. The ACOA later joined with religious groups in 1972 to form a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C.

The FSACC recalls the words of

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., linking the

civil rights movement to anti-apartheid

action and calling attention to the struggle

in South Africa.

Otherwise occupied with the ongoing domestic civil rights movement in the United States, leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. also publicly denounced the apartheid system and urged action to end it. Pictured to the right, a flyer recounts the words of Dr. King from the first national Human Rights Day, December 10th, 1962. As the flyer notes, the ACOA was instrumental in keeping such leaders involved with anti-apartheid activities, organizing further meetings, statements, and actions to bring national attention to the ongoing struggle in South Africa. 

ACOA pamphlet on

conditions in South Africa

and resistance efforts

During the 1970s, escalation of the conflict between the regime and protesters in South Africa corresponded with the radicalization of the civil rights movement in the United States. In South Africa, a new generation of student activists staged demonstrations such as the one that ended in the slaughter in Soweto in 1976. In the U.S., the shift toward Black Power, led by groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, contributed to a shift toward an "ethnic model" of political strategy. This spurred an influx of black political leaders into the halls of power in the U.S. and facilitated an identification among many African Americans with global racial struggles such as the anti-apartheid movement.  During the early-to-mid 1970s, the African Liberation Support Committee organized African Liberation Day marches in many cities across the United States, with participation by local activists committed to the pan-African liberation struggle. 

ACOA activism extended to

protesting sporting events

involving South Africa, as

seen in this 1979 pamphlet

In 1977, Randall Robinson founded a new organization called TransAfrica, symbolizing the "responsibility" among U.S. activists to institutionalize "the black community’s interest in foreign affairs."  TransAfrica's strategy to address issues such as apartheid included intensive education and direct-action campaigns, as well as focused efforts on powerful historical agents of civil rights change such as the black church. By 1980, Pan-Africanist sentiment abounded in the African American community, and the struggle against apartheid expanded to many college campuses as a result of TransAfrica's effective strategic vision. As international attention continued to swell against South Africa in the 1980s, many American groups began divestment campaigns at the local and state levels to increase public awareness and push for the dismantling of the apartheid system. 

ACOA letter on the

implications of President

Reagan's election in 1980

Anti-Apartheid and the Cold War

The backdrop of the Cold War formed a key constraint facing the anti-apartheid movement in the U.S., especially the belief of American policymakers that the Soviet Union exerted influence on liberation movements such as the African National Congress.  Anti-Communist sentiment prevented some American civil rights leaders from fully endorsing the black liberation struggle against the South African government, at the risk of associating the domestic U.S. movement with communism. Just as the U.S. government defended many established governments in Africa against the anticolonial liberation movements perceived as communist-inspired, the U.S. sustained a friendly relationship with the apartheid regime and protected the substantial financial investments American firms had in South Africa. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement" only strengthened this partnership with the South African regime, until political pressure from the anti-apartheid movement finally caused the U.S. Congress to impose economic sanctions on South Africa over Reagan's veto in 1986. Reagan's policy emphasized the role of U.S. corporate investment to stimulate positive change for the oppressed blacks under apartheid, arguing that economic sanctions, such as those advocated by students at the University of Michigan, would only worsen the situation.

Sources for this page:

Francis Njubi Nesbitt, Race for Sanctions: African Americans against Apartheid, 1946-1994 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).

"Forward to Freedom: The History of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, 1959-1994," <http://aamarchives.org>.

"Apartheid," <http://www.history.com/topics/apartheid>.

South African History Online, "Liberation Struggle in South Africa," <http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/apartheid-and-reactions-it>.