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Michigan State University activists win divestment from apartheid South Africa, 1978
Beginning in 1948, the white “apartheid” government of South Africa forced the black majority to live as second-class citizens, condemned to poverty and restricted in their freedoms by a system of legalized oppression. On the other side of the globe, in the 1970s, progressive activists in the United States found themselves absent a cause after the end of the civil rights movement and Vietnam War. The blatant atrocity of apartheid seemed a good target. Activists realized that American corporations were supporting the apartheid regime by operating subsidiaries in South Africa and selling to the government. They chose to target these corporations and thereby undermine apartheid. The logic of this tactic was disseminated by several national organizations, including the American Committee on Africa and the Washington Office on Africa.
One place where the anti-apartheid movement took hold was at Michigan State University (MSU). MSU is a large public university with approximately 40,000 undergraduates. It is located in East Lansing, Michigan, USA, a suburban community serving to support both the university and the nearby state capital, Lansing. In the mid-1970s, a small but dedicated group called the Southern Africa Liberation Committee (SALC) pushed to make Michigan State and East Lansing pioneers in the movement to isolate the discriminatory South African regime. SALC emerged in 1972 from the East Lansing Peace Education Center, which was closely affiliated with the Methodist Church. It included university students, staff and faculty, as well as community members. The tireless Patricia and Frank Beeman formed the nucleus of the organization (Frank Beeman was also the university tennis coach). SALC began by providing material aid to refugees and freedom fighters in Rhodesia and South Africa, but moved toward the strategy of economic non-cooperation as the decade progressed. In 1976, it pressured the city of East Lansing to pass the Selective Purchasing Resolution, which prevented the city from buying supplies from companies with operations in South Africa. East Lansing was the first U.S. city to take this step. Following this success, the logical next target was MSU and its $30 million endowment.
SALC began the divestiture campaign by educating the university community of apartheid’s horrors. Every week, led by Frank and Patricia Beeman, SALC would post new information on bulletin boards, distribute leaflets, host speeches by African activists, and show films about South Africa. The films usually came from the International Defense and Aid Fund, and other informational material came from the American Committee on Africa, Washington Office on Africa, or the university African Studies department. Utilizing these support channels, the Beemans, who had never been to Africa themselves, were able to educate others.
Raising awareness of the situation in South Africa was important, but the ultimate decision on divestiture would be made by the Board of Trustees. Michigan State’s status as a public university helped exert pressure the Board—its trustees are elected by a statewide vote, and thus more accountable to public opinion than trustees of a private institution. To translate the growing consciousness into pressure on the Board, SALC provided postage-paid postcards that filmgoers sent to trustees expressing their opposition to the university’s investments. In addition, each member of the Board was personally invited to each speaker and film showing. SALC sent representatives to every Board meeting to ask questions and ensure that South Africa remained on the trustees’ mind. For one meeting, SALC prepared official-looking green folders with twenty pages of information on apartheid and divestiture. They arrived early and placed one folder at each of the trustees’ seats. When the trustees arrived, they assumed the material was part of the meeting’s official agenda. The campaign acquired two important friends in Trustees Blanche Martin and Aubrey Radcliffe. These two African-American trustees had been involved with the U.S. civil rights movement, and the oppression of blacks in South Africa was obviously disturbing from their perspective.
As the campaign continued, SALC held a few small-scale protest assemblies outside the administration building. The organizers decided, however, that their energy would best be utilized by working through institutional channels. Toward this end, SALC maintained a presence at meetings of the Associated Students of Michigan State University (ASMSU) and the Council of Graduate Students (COGS). With prodding, each student organization passed a resolution endorsing divestiture. Before voting on the matter, however, the Board of Trustees referred the issue to a faculty panel charged with investigating the financial impact of such a drastic rearrangement of investments. If the Board hoped to find an excuse not to divest, they were disappointed when the panel found negative impacts of divestiture to be negligible.
At this point, the trustees had almost no reason not to divest. Financial impact was not a concern, the entire student body supported the measure, and no organized opposition existed. Some SALC members remained concerned, however. They worried that the private financial interests of the trustees, many of whom held stock in targeted companies, would overrule the obvious moral benefits of divestiture. Although this factor would play a large role in divestiture campaigns at other colleges and universities, it proved not to be an issue at MSU. In autumn of 1978, Trustee Aubrey Radcliffe moved to divest from all companies with subsidiaries in South Africa, and the Board voted in favor of his proposal. (Radcliffe is perhaps the individual who sacrificed most for divestiture—the state Republican Party did not approve of his action, and did not allow him to run for reelection as Trustee.)
Between January 1979 and January 1980, Michigan State sold $8.5 million of stock in thirteen companies. Far from being costly, the transactions actually made money for the university and diversified its portfolio. MSU did, however, experience a punitive decline in corporate donations in subsequent years, especially from Michigan-based Dow Chemical, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors, all of whom operated in South Africa.
SALC emerged from the campaign stronger than ever, and went on to pass a series of three state laws in the early 1980s extending mandated divestiture to all state universities in Michigan (later overturned by the state Supreme Court). In 1985, the group convinced MSU to return a $1 million donation from an alumnus with unsavory ties to the South African regime. SALC remained energetic and active until the end of apartheid in 1994.