Atlanta, Georgia, Was a Center of Anti-Apartheid Organizing

The common picture we get of the US South is one of resolute conservatism. But the region has a radical history, too — as seen in Atlanta’s role as a center of opposition to apartheid South Africa.

Congressional candidate and civil rights activist Julian Bond on primary election night in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1986. (Thomas S. England / Getty Images)

In 1985, Atlanta, Georgia, was one of the nerve centers of opposition to apartheid South Africa in the United States. The branch of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was coordinating a national boycott against Coca-Cola, led by Thandi Gcabashe, the daughter of African National Congress (ANC) leader Albert Luthuli. Activists in the city and at Georgia’s universities were fighting for divestment, while the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was working with mine unions to picket investor meetings. And progressive civil rights leaders like Georgia state legislator Julian Bond, the founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were locking horns over divestment with moderate counterparts like Andrew Young, the mayor of Atlanta.

The history of the anti-apartheid movement in the United States has gained a certain cachet with organizers and policymakers. Divestment, pioneered and popularized by liberation activists to weaken the South African apartheid regime, is now being applied to climate change and Israel. The South frequently gets left out of this history — yet in Georgia and elsewhere below the Mason-Dixon line, anti-apartheid activism was a vital issue.

Within unions, workers were worried about deindustrialization and the role multinational corporations played in South African apartheid; in progressive churches, the violence of apartheid amplified fears of war; for people of color, South African apartheid highlighted both the fight against white supremacy and the unmet demands of the civil rights movement. All of these found expression in the South and especially in Atlanta.

The Struggle in the South

The American South figures into some of the earliest episodes of anti-apartheid sentiment in the United States. In the mid-1950s, when South Africa was unfamiliar to many Americans, Martin Luther King Jr expressed admiration for the leader of the ANC, Luthuli. By 1962, King endorsed a full boycott of South Africa and continued to speak out until his assassination in 1968. Members of the American Committee on Africa discussed Atlanta as a possible site to jump-start organizing in the South. Still, organizing remained scattered and small scale.

That began to change in the 1970s, when events like the 1976 Soweto uprising dispelled the myth that black South Africans accepted apartheid and starkly revealed the system’s brute violence. In Atlanta, opposition to apartheid sprouted in several different places, but it invariably converged around the issue of US businesses in South Africa. Faith-based activism came from the SCLC: it coordinated protests against the sale of South African krugerrands and, with the United Mine Workers, against the Southern Company importation of South African coal.

The AFSC had an office in Atlanta, and it too assumed a leadership position in coordinating among different groups to support sanctions and boycotts. The participation of South African exiles like Gcabashe, who led the office’s South Africa program, gave the program dedicated and experienced leadership. It achieved fame nationally for launching a boycott of Coca-Cola, Atlanta’s most well-known corporation. The Atlanta office also helped support AFSC’s “Peace Tours” — educational speaking tours that informed audiences about the connections between US militarism and the arms industry. The sojourns frequently covered the South, in part because of the number of weapons manufacturers in the region.

But the central fight for anti-apartheid activists was over divestment and sanctions. Targeting individual companies was too slow, and boycotts of South African goods, while powerfully symbolic, did little to damage the South African economy writ large. Convincing churches, universities, and public pension funds to divest from South African companies became one of the central campaigns for apartheid opponents. The fight was led by the Georgia Coalition for Divestment in South Africa and supported politically by Bond.

While conservatives around the United States opposed divestment and generally supported maintaining ties with South Africa, in Atlanta disagreement over apartheid exposed divisions between veterans of the civil rights movement. Atlanta mayor Young, who had been elected in 1981 and previously served as Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations, was strikingly moderate and deeply anti-communist.

Young opposed apartheid but did so from the perspective that the vicious system was driving South African toward Marxism. He saw US businesses as a force for good in South Africa. Under Carter, Young had shared his fellow Georgian’s preference for enlisting multinational corporations to engage in charity in lieu of fighting for sanctions; he opposed them even in the wake of the Soweto uprising and the 1977 murder of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. In doing so, Young drew on his own lessons from the civil rights movement — namely, that winning over whites was key and had to be carried out cautiously.

As mayor, Young supported divestment but always from the assumption that continuing to invest in South Africa was bad business. His preference was for symbolic action, such as prohibiting South African Airways from using Atlanta’s airport; he continued to express support for voluntary corporate action and believed that South Africa’s business community was the best agent to end apartheid. Atlanta’s city council was the major driver behind the divestment of the city’s pension fund; Young played a hands-off role.

Bond’s approach was different. He used his office to fight for state-level divestment and lobbied Georgia’s Republican senator, Mack Mattingly, to vote for sanctions. Bond succeeded in the latter — Mattingly voted to override Ronald Reagan’s veto of the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act — but was less successful in the statehouse. Despite putting up bills every year, Bond never got his desired state-level divestment.

One likely reason was Coca-Cola. The powerful company kept the divestment campaign at bay by making African American businessman Carl Ware, an executive vice president at the company, its strategist and public face on South Africa. Ware played hardball, going so far as to contact public institutions about employees who were speaking out on the issue. Gloria Gaines, one of the cochairs of the Georgia Coalition for Divestment, recalled that Ware reached out to her bosses at the Atlanta transit authority about her activity. Coca-Cola’s influence was so pervasive that SCLC prohibited its staffers from attending anti-Coke rallies.

By the mid-1980s, Coke decided to announce a watered-down divestment solution: they agreed to sell their bottling operations in South Africa to black investors. Young and the city’s newspapers publicly applauded the decision, but activists noted that Coca-Cola retained the right to sell syrup to the new bottling operations, leaving them with the exact same market share. As AFSC and the Georgia Coalition maintained their boycott, Coca-Cola continued to escalate its PR campaign — even persuading leading South African figures like Desmond Tutu to serve on the board of an “equal opportunity fund” to burnish company credentials.

The movement had made deep inroads, and apartheid would fall less than a decade later with Nelson Mandela’s election. But Coke, that all-American company, showed how to resist demands for change.

The Progressive South

The Canadian historian and intellectual John Saul has lamented that the anti-apartheid movement failed to create lasting anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist critiques in the United States. He’s not wrong: activists who came of age during the movement often lament the absence of any African foreign policy lobby in the US with a mass base and significant weight. Powerful corporate public relations campaigns pushed back against demands for accountability. Over the years, many civil rights organizations came to adopt more centrist agendas and grew enmeshed with business funding.

But the anti-apartheid movement’s history in Atlanta reveals that even in the movement’s heyday, progressive activists had to contend with a mainstream, pro-corporate politics not only among business power brokers but former civil rights leaders. Opposition to apartheid set off battles to realign organizations, and in the grand scheme of things, progressive voices won the debate.

Young opposed sanctions against South Africa in the mid-1970s; by 1985, he had to at least pay lip service to them or risk alienating his voters. Activists in Atlanta forced a Republican senator to override Reagan’s veto, no mean feat. Corporations found themselves facing ever-greater scrutiny: there was no question of operating outside the public eye.

While the movement in Atlanta did not accomplish all its goals, it achieved a great deal in a pro-business city. And progressives in the South once again proved that the region is not an uncrackable monolith.