Their cause on that first MLK Day was galvanizing support for the abolition of apartheid, a violent, degrading system of racial segregation that South Africa’s white minority-run government had implemented before anyone (including Coretta) had even heard of Martin Luther King Jr. But the parallels between the struggle he eventually led in America in the 1960s and those of some 25 million black South Africans in the 1980s were unmistakable: de facto and de jure segregation as a legal and living reality in every imaginable sphere, including restrictions on black home ownership (whites owned 80-90 percent of the land), access to schooling and jobs, and to the most fundamental human rights: whom a black person could love and marry, where he could travel and how he could defend himself in and out of court. If anything, apartheid was even more extreme than Jim Crow, despite the fact that unlike in America, black South Africans accounted for 75 percent of the country’s population.
The champion of their decades-old struggle was Nelson Mandela, whose death in December we continue to mourn. He had been arrested, initially, on charges of incitement and leaving the country without a passport in 1962, when John F. Kennedy occupied the White House. At one point, in April 1963, both Mandela and King had been in jail at the same time: Mandela, a lawyer, in Pretoria, South Africa; and King, a Baptist preacher, in Birmingham. Both, too, were suspected of communist ties, real or imagined.
But there were important differences as well. While King went free after 10 days behind bars, in May 1963 Mandela was transferred to the prison on Robben Island and, the following year, his original five-year sentence was extended to life on the additional charge of sabotage. (King, 10 years younger than Mandela, was unwavering in his embrace of nonviolence, to the point of frustrating the most radical of his supporters; Mandela, as leader of the African National Congress, had come to the conclusion that arms were necessary for self-defense.)
So when King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, Mandela remained in prison. When King attended the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, Mandela remained in prison. When, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., where he was supporting a sanitation workers’ strike, Mandela was in prison. Mandela was still in prison when Rep. John Conyers of Michigan first proposed an MLK holiday four days later. And he remained in prison when Illinois enacted the first state King holiday in 1973; when President Jimmy Carter announced his support for a national King holiday in 1979; when Stevie Wonder released his song, “Happy Birthday,” pleading for the holiday in 1980; when Coretta Scott King lobbied Congress for it repeatedly; and when, in 1983, the House passed it, 338 votes to 90; when the Senate followed suit, 78 votes to 22; and when President Reagan signed it into law. By January 1986, when the King Dream Chorus and The Holiday Crew (including turns by, among others, Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, New Edition and a thrilling vocal performance by Whitney Houston) released the song, “King Holiday,” under the leadership of Dr. King’s son, Dexter, Nelson Mandela was 67 years old and in his 23rd year of imprisonment in South Africa.
Bishop Tutu’s US Tour
But, just as King had his Coretta, Mandela had his Winnie. Mandela also had his version of John the Baptist: Bishop Desmond Tutu, the charismatic (and then 54-year-old) Anglican leader of the archdiocese of Johannesburg, a fellow black South African who, for two weeks in January 1986, captured Americans’ attention during a whirlwind 12-city tour to raise awareness and funds for the cause. At home in Atlanta, Coretta Scott King, as head of the King Center, may not have had the power to legislate U.S. policy on South Africa, but she could give Tutu a platform. She invited Tutu to Ebenezer Baptist Church, her late husband’s church, on his birthday, to preach and receive an award that would dramatically link King’s memory to the Free South Africa Movement being waged two decades after his death.
It was a bravura performance. On Jan. 8, 1986, Bishop Tutu arrived in the nation’s capital, where he visited the South African Embassy, site of a yearlong protest campaign against apartheid. Standing on an impromptu stage—a milk-crate or a cardboard box—in the bitter cold, striking in his religious garb, Tutu described the South African regime as “a vicious, immoral, un-Christian and totally evil system.” Applauding those present, he graciously took possession of a “truckload” of signatures expressing solidarity with his people. Proving it, 12 protestors (including the singers Peter, Paul and Mary) were arrested at the embassy that very day, while then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry announced legislation to rename that portion of Washington Avenue “Nelson and Winnie Mandela Way.”
Two years before, apartheid had barely been front-page news in America; now it was a lead story, and, with Tutu broadcasting the message, a shift in the Free South Africa Movement was quickly turning eyes (and feet) toward a direct appeal to U.S. institutions—corporations and universities alike—to divest their financial ties from South Africa. In fact, a boycott of South African canned goods at the Florida-based retail chain Winn Dixie was already underway by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Before MLK Day even arrived that month, Dr. King’s children (Martin Luther King III, Bernice and the late Yolanda) were arrested outside the Winn Dixie on MLK Drive in Atlanta, according to the Atlanta Daily World on Jan. 10, 1986.
Movement leaders were especially frustrated that the Reagan administration, while renewing limited sanctions on South Africa in September 1985, had aligned itself with corporate titans doing everything they could to lobby against stricter measures. As part of the defense, those especially cozy with the apartheid government fashioned the disingenuous argument that somehow sanctions would hurt black workers in South Africa. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the leader of the pro-Reagan “Moral Majority” who had sided with Jim Crow forces in the 1960s, now dismissed Bishop Tutu as a “phony,” according to Manning Marable in “Apartheid and the Civil Rights Movement,” an article in the New Pittsburgh Courier on Jan. 4, 1986.
The Reagan administration’s glacial pace only met increasing defiance on American campuses, where, under pressure from students and faculty, 26 universities had divested from South Africa since the prior April, noted Marable. There was even a student shantytown dotting the Dartmouth green.