Raymond Stitt, 52, remembers what it was like to be forced to ride in the back of the bus as a young black serviceman in South Carolina.
Now, more than 30 years later, Stitt is once again on the scene of another civil rights drama.
While demonstrators protest South Africa's policy of apartheid outside that country's embassy each day, Stitt can be found inside its doors--sorting mail and ordering paper supplies, going about his job the same way he has for the last 29 years.
"I have no problem there," Stitt said. "We're like a family, really.
"I'm surprised it's (the protest) lasted this long," said Stitt, who started at the South African Embassy as a janitor and worked his way up to overseeing the mail room.
'I Don't Even Worry About It'
"Ninty-nine percent of the time we don't even know they're there. I don't even worry about it. I just go along and do my job.
"Sure, they're having trouble over there (in South Africa)," explained Stitt, who declined to be photographed, saying he does not like publicity. "But for years, we had trouble right here. For years there was no such thing as a Washingtonian voting. I've been working at the embassy longer than I've been able to vote."
(Even today, Washington's population, which is predominantly black, has no voting representation in Congress, and the city's mayor was appointed by the President until as recently as 1976.)
Except for the four years Stitt spent in the Air Force, the South African Embassy is the only place he has worked. He said that after his discharge he applied for a job with the U. S. government, "but I never heard from them. South Africa hired me when Washington wouldn't."
Only Three Black Employees
Stitt is one of three blacks (two are Americans; one is Jamaican) employed by the embassy. No black South Africans work there. Asked how he justifies working for a government that denies blacks the vote, Stitt replied, "I know blacks in America who couldn't vote. I'm not talking about blacks in Washington. I'm talking about blacks who had the opportunity to vote and weren't permitted to vote.
"I wouldn't weigh that against what's happening in South Africa, but if I had to make a comparison I would say there is a comparison. Blacks in Mississippi, Alabama, all those places--back in the '40s and '50s--they couldn't vote. If they went down to register they were taking their lives in their hands. But I gave four years of my life (in the Air Force) to that government.
"It took us in the neighborhood of 200 years to get what I call our so-called freedom. South Africa has made a lot of progress. I don't feel embarrassed working for them. When I first came here, I never dreamed I'd be running the mail room. It was just something we (blacks) didn't do.
"Because I work for them doesn't mean I endorse what they're doing," Stitt continued. "What it means is I'm a 52-year-old man working for a government that a lot of people don't tend to care for. But I don't get involved in politics, so maybe that's why it never bothered me. I would never say there are no faults with the country."
Stitt recently returned from a two-week, government-sponsored trip through South Africa for 20-year embassy workers and their spouses.
"It's a beautiful country. I'd like to go back. It was purely fun, one of the most enjoyable trips I've ever been on," said Stitt, who was in the country when police fatally shot 19 blacks in a crowd after one of them threw a rock.
He saw "very few" signs indicating areas for whites only, Stitt said. "There were so few signs that my wife took a picture of one," he said.
"I saw blacks going into any store they wanted to, at least where we were, even in the hotels. Blacks were everywhere, working. How much they make, I don't know. When we talked to them, that was their only knock--that they didn't make enough.
A Guided Tour
"Our trip was mapped out, and so we didn't see what the papers were talking about. We were never in contact with the homelands. I would like to go back, and maybe I'll see some of the things they're talking about."
Stitt, who has lived most of his life in Washington, said he would not dread living in South Africa. "It would be just like growing up in the United States," he said, adding that he sees many parallels between the two places.
"I grew up with all blacks. There weren't any whites in my school," Stitt explained. "I never came in contact with whites during my whole school term. I can remember not being able to go to the park on 16th and Kalorama Road.
'I Like My Job'
"But I like Washington. I would never leave Washington. I like my job, and I don't intend to leave my job. I have a lot of friends who are South African and I enjoy their friendship. I enjoy my job. If I didn't, I wouldn't work there."
Stitt said he is often asked by friends and even his children about his association with the South African government.
In response to their questions, he said he recommends they read authoritative books on the subject.
He has "respect" for the demonstrators, Stitt said, "but I don't think I would ever do it. I don't believe a majority of the folks know enough about the country. I think things in South Africa are better left to the folks who know what they're talking about.
"Sure things are bad over there. But they're working on it. At least they say so--and I believe they are."