Chanting “freedom yes, apartheid no,” civil rights leaders and hundreds of followers marched on the South African Embassy for the 366th day in a row Wednesday as part of what protest organizer Randall Robinson proclaimed to be “the longest running, non-stop demonstration in American history.”
Wednesday marked the first anniversary of the day that Robinson and two other prominent blacks were detained by police after refusing to leave the diplomatic compound, launching a daily vigil that has led to more than 2,800 largely symbolic and peaceful arrests.
The embassy protest--coupled with heightened racial tensions in South Africa itself--helped light a fire under a moribund anti-apartheid movement in the United States. Many American corporations responded to pressure from the movement by scaling back investments in that country, while Congress and a grudging President Reagan moved for the first time to impose economic sanctions on the Pretoria government to protest its white supremacist policies.
Effect of Protests
“Things weren’t happening till we started these demonstrations, and everybody started getting an awareness of the situation,” Richard Womack, 41, an AFL-CIO official said as he marched in a light drizzle toward the embassy. “This has pushed the politicians to act.”
Womack was among several persons arrested for trespassing at the embassy last Labor Day. That put his name on a long list of liberals and celebrities who have been arrested.
Singers Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder and Judy Collins have been arrested at the embassy over the last year. So have Amy Carter, Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark, United Auto Workers President Owen Bieber, Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.) and 22 House members. Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, was one of 10 protesters detained after Wednesday’s rally.
None of those arrested over the year has been jailed, largely because the Administration of Washington Mayor Marion Berry remains highly sympathetic to the cause and has refused to prosecute. Barry’s wife, Effi, was arrested last January.
Protesters vowed not to slacken their anti-apartheid efforts. Robinson, head of TransAfrica, which has organized the protests, said that the civil disobedience would be expanded to the doorsteps of the 350 American corporations doing business in South Africa as part of a campaign to force them to scrap operations in that country.
“We’re going to bring our boys home,” Robinson vowed. “We’re going to bring 350 American companies home.”
The white-run South African government is already feeling the economic squeeze brought on by increased protests both here and abroad. American bank loans and investment capital have dried up over the last year.
Congress appeared on the verge of passing a package of tough economic sanctions until President Reagan, feeling political heat from Republicans as well as Democrats, jettisoned his “constructive engagement” policy of gently stroking Pretoria into reforms and imposed his own sanctions.
Probably the most damaging of Reagan’s actions was a ban on importing South African krugerrands to this country. American sales of the gold coins were one of South Africa’s most lucrative sources of foreign exchange. Now, South Africa has temporarily stopped making them.
In speeches Wednesday, protest leaders congratulated themselves for their persistence. “We put the issue of apartheid on the front burner in this country,” said Mary Frances Berry, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. “But the suffering, the dying and oppression goes on even as we speak.”