A Black Ambassador to Apartheid South Africa
Juan Williams begins a series of profiles of American pioneers with the story of Edward Perkins, the first black U.S. ambassador to South Africa and to the United Nations.
South Africa was in turmoil during the 1980s. Apartheid was still the law and although whites were just a fraction of the population, they owned 90 percent of the land. The government, led by President P.W. Botha, was on the verge of a bloody civil war with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress. Each day brought news of more violence.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other black South Africans were asking corporations and governments to pressure the white South African government to end apartheid. In Washington, President Reagan resisted using economic sanctions. His administration preferred a policy called "constructive engagement."
The Reagan White House was at odds with U.S. civil rights leaders over its affirmative action and domestic social policy, and South African's freedom struggle resonated strongly with the American public.
In 1986, the Reagan administration made a surprising move. Secretary of State George Schultz called career diplomat Edward Perkins.
"He said, 'There are people around the president who believe that it is time to send a black ambassador,'" recalls Perkins. "He said, 'But not necessarily for the right reasons.'"
Schultz asked Perkins to think about the job overnight, but warned him that the appointment was so controversial that he couldn't talk to anyone but his wife about it. Perkins thought it over.
"My wife was the one who said 'You took an oath of office to go where needed when needed," Perkins says. "So how can you say anything but, 'Yes, I'll go'?"
A Life in the Foreign Service
Edwards Perkins was born in 1928 in segregated Louisiana and grew up in the cotton fields. He then went to school in Portland, Ore., and joined the military. In 1972, he joined the elite and very white Foreign Service and consistently found himself posted overseas in black Africa.
Perkins, who was then almost 60, feared that he was being used as a black face to mask the Reagan administration's refusal to get tough with South Africa.
He decided to meet with President Reagan in the Oval Office. Perkins told the president that the black population of South Africa looked upon him as being anti-black.
"Finally [Reagan] said, 'What do you think black Americans will think of you for taking the job from me?' And [Reagan] said, 'Well, they won't like it,'" Perkins says.
After President Reagan offered Perkins the job, Jesse Jackson said Perkins' role was like a Jew carrying messages between a reactionary administration and Hitler. Perkins then agreed to a meeting with Jackson at the State Department.
"Rev. Jackson came and said, 'Mr. Ambassador, I've come here to ask you not to go to South Africa," says Perkins. "[Jackson] said, 'Why should you allow this racist president to be the president who appoints the first black American to be ambassador to South Africa? You know they may kill you down there.' I said, 'That has crossed my mind, actually.'"
Stepping Up to Botha
Perkins reported for duty in South Africa in 1987. On Thanksgiving Day, he met President Botha for the first time. A large crowd of black South Africans came to watch in disbelief as a black arrived at the president's office to present his American diplomatic credentials.
Perkins was instructed to step up to Botha, who always tried to physically position himself above the incoming ambassadors.
"The president's aides didn't know how tall I am," Perkins said. "We ended up looking up straight at each other -- right into each other's eyes. I could tell that he didn't intend to avert his eyes, and I didn't intend mine either -- and then when I handed him the letter of credence, he had to look down to take it -- so he lost the battle that day."
Perkins told Botha that he planned to travel across South Africa to meet with as many people as possible. He recalls the conversation that followed.
"Then [Botha] stopped me and he stuck his finger in my face and he said, 'Listen. I've heard about you. I don't want you getting involved in our affairs. You understand?' And then I said 'Well, Mr. President. I'm here as a representative of the American people to the people of South Africa.' And he said, 'You didn't hear me did you,' and he stuck his finger in my face again," Perkins says. "At this time, he was kind of shaking, he was so angry. The president and I were never to have a civil conversation during my entire time there."
Perkins kept his promise and did visit South Africa's poor black townships. He recalls the South African government trailing him.
"They were looking for ways to thwart any effectiveness I might have," he says.
Perkins later became the first black director general of the U.S. Foreign Services. He is the executive director of the International Programs Center at the University of Oklahoma. His new memoir is called Mr. Ambassador: Warrior for Peace.Rea
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.