Jane Sims Podesta
February 04, 1985 12:00 PM

Sen. Lowell Weicker stood under cold, gray skies in Washington, D.C. two weeks ago wearing a matching dark gray suit and handcuffs. Minutes earlier the Republican Senator from Connecticut had linked arms with five other demonstrators and marched up to the front door of the South African embassy. When they were refused admittance, they turned around and began to sing We Shall Overcome, the anthem of the U.S. civil rights movement of 20 years ago. They had come to protest South Africa’s policy of apartheid, and they were arrested for demonstrating within 500 feet of a foreign embassy. “The American people feel apartheid is wrong,” said Weicker, who that day became the first U.S. Senator ever arrested for civil disobedience. “We’re not going to stay in silence any longer. Children are dying. People are being uprooted. The silence that envelops today’s black South African is no different from that which wasted yesterday’s European Jew.”

Weicker’s gesture was the latest in a growing campaign to embarrass the South African government. Since the protests started last Thanksgiving Eve, more than 500 people have been arrested in a dozen cities across the U.S. during antiapartheid protests. In Washington, picketers have included Harry Belafonte, former tennis champion Arthur Ashe, Sen. Gary Hart, feminist Gloria Steinem, Yolanda King, daughter of the late Martin Luther King Jr., Dick Gregory, Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind., Douglas and Rory Kennedy, son and daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and Rep. Don Edwards of California. “I’ve seen South Africa and it reminds me of the American South of 20 years ago,” says Edwards, a veteran of the civil rights movement. “All blacks [in South Africa] have to get out of town at night, and the well-to-do white people squirrel them away in their homes so they can have servants. It really is a form of slavery and it’s very distressing.”

The high-profile protesters are marshaled by a Washington-based group, TransAfrica, which is headed by lawyer Randall Robinson, a Harvard Law School graduate and younger brother of former ABC anchor Max Robinson. “Apartheid happens to be a particularly galvanizing thing,” he explains. “People can hardly wait to sign up to protest against it.” So far, though, no one has been brought to trial and all charges have been dropped. Robinson says he sees this as evidence that the Reagan Administration does not want its policy of “constructive engagement”—gentle pressure on Pretoria to end apartheid—to be scrutinized too closely. “You don’t need any better proof,” he says. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington explained that prosecutors did not wish to clog court calendars with cases that “lack prosecutive merit.”

The demonstrations are usually timed for the late afternoon to ensure maximum exposure on the nightly news shows. Yet there are many differences between the current small-scale protests and the unforgettable scenes that splashed across TV screens in the civil rights era of the 1960s. “The protests sure did bring back memories of the ’60s,” says Steinem. “In the old days literally hundreds of people got arrested. And you had to sew up your pockets so the police didn’t plant drugs on you. This time it was very different because the police were much calmer. It took more courage for me to sing We Shall Overcome in public than to get arrested.”

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