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2014-02-06 18.33.26

Yesterday I attended an event at Howard University on ‘Washington, DC and the Free South Africa Movement: A Retrospective.’  The event was moderated by Dr. Howard Dobson, Director of Howard’s Moorland-Springarn Research Center, which is celebrating its centennial this year.  Panelists included former Congressman and Mayor of Oakland, Ron Dellums, as well as TransAfrica Forum board member and Professor of the University of the District of Columbia, Sylvia Hill.  A black ordained Hindu minister, Gregory McCay also spoke on discrimination in India.

Hill, who served as the Secretary-General of the North American delegation to the 6th Pan-African Congress in Tanzania in 1974 (which she took as the starting point for the Free South Africa Movement in DC), spoke on the organizing strategy of the local Free South Africa movement, noting that ‘movements don’t just happen.’  While she didn’t relate any bombshell nuggets on the movement, she gave very insightful remarks that would be useful and inspirational for any aspiring community activist or mobilizer.  Her take on the importance of utilizing symbolism for activism was particularly poignant.

She noted that a key to the success of the DC Free South Africa movement was its two-pronged strategy.  Groups like TransAfrica and the Washington Office on Africa conducted advocacy/lobbying efforts on the Hill (with support of their allies, particularly those like Dellums in the Congressional Black Caucus) while Hill helped launch a South African Support Project to mobilize and educate the community.  She noted that gospel concerts were a key forum to facilitate this outreach.

Dellums, who is currently a visiting Fellow at Howard, followed with very stirring remarks.  He began by noting his conversations with tennis great Arthur Ashe on efforts to isolate Apartheid South Africa.  He lauded the role of black workers for Polaroid, who helped to launch divestment following their concerns that pass books for blacks in South Africa used Polaroid pictures for identification purposes.

Dellums criticized Nixon for his lack of support for divestment from South Africa, gave some mild praise for President Carter’s efforts, and spoke at some length of Reagan’s support for Apartheid South Africa, noting that the US during the Cold War would ‘support dictators over communists.’  Fortunately, although it seemed that Dellums had the most vitriol for Reagan, he also achieved legislative success against him, with the House and Republican controlled Senate passing legislation against Apartheid South Africa over Reagan’s veto.  He noted that he worked closely with Republican Senator Richard Lugar on this legislation.

As I heard him do during Mandela’s 95th birthday celebrations, Dellums also gave a brief Mandela impersonation, quoting Madiba’s observations when he visited Oakland shortly after being released from prison.  Not to be outdone by Hill’s comments, he also noted the power of an individual activist: ‘I just happened to be honored to play a tiny role, but all those tiny roles became a movement that helped to free South Africa.’

(L) Hill (R) Dellums

(3rd from L) Hill (far R) Dellums

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