This week in history, 1983: Black students protest 5C lack of response to South African apartheid

(Image courtesy of the TSL archives)

In February 2022, TSL commemorated Black History Month with “Illuminating 5C Black Legacies,” a special projects feature on Black history at the Claremont Colleges. A group of more than fifteen contributors presented a series of articles chronicling Black achievement from the turn of the twentieth century into the end of the civil rights movement. 

This year, TSL’s special projects desk will continue where it left off and dive into some of the earliest celebrations of Black History Month at the 5Cs in the latter half of the twentieth century.

In “This Week in History,” we bring this forty-year-old article back into the limelight, along with commentary on its contents. We expand upon the sociopolitical and international issues the article mentions, contextualizing them in terms of present-day Black issues. 

Cammi Lynn Cager’s article captured the candlelight march, commemorating Black History Month ’83 at the 5Cs, 40 years ago. In Feb. 1983, South Africa was still embroiled in apartheid – institutionalized racial segregation, rooted in white supremacy. The candlelight march was in direct protest to the 5C administration’s inaction and failure to explicitly support its Black students. 

By the 1980s, the South African government had become increasingly isolated, with several other countries refusing to do business with South Africa in protest of its apartheid regime. But the US was slow to do the same.

Racist or not, the South African government was putting money in the pockets of American businesses. To place trade sanctions on South Africa, then, would be detrimental to the US economy. That, apparently, was enough reason for many Americans to keep supporting the apartheid regime.

But the American resistance to the apartheid was brewing, even at the 5Cs. The speeches of then-Pomona President David Alexander and then-Pitzer President Frank Ellsworths calling for “understanding” and “cooperation” between people of different races but failing to recommend any sort of direct action. But Pomona Professor John Higginson called for direct action and encouraged 5C students to make their voices heard. 

The political climate may have changed since forty years ago, and the social issues we are most concerned about may be different; but racism, white supremacy, and state-sponsored violence—the root of Black issues then and now—remain prevalent in both the United States and the rest of the world. Again, Higginson’s call to action, addressed to the candlelight marchers at the 5Cs, comes to mind; the United States government has proven time and again its disregard for Black lives, and it is only through protest and community effort that we can affect any change or reform.

Robert Cooper asked the Claremont Colleges community, this week forty years ago: if not us, who?

And if not now, when?

Read the original article in its entirety below.

Second Candlelight March Attracts 125 (originally published Feb. 11, 1983)

By Cammi Lynn Cager

Despite light rain Sunday night, a sizeable group of marchers participated in the candlelight procession commemorating Black History Month. The marchers met on the steps of Carnegie at 7 p.m., followed a route leading through the five colleges and ending at the Office of Black Student Affairs. Various Claremont Colleges faculty members gave speeches and the Claremont Colleges Gospel Choir sang a selection of songs.

The festivities began with the group singing the Negro National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Robert Cooper, president of the Black Student Union, greeted the gathering marchers with an opening speech. He thanked them for coming out despite the bad weather. He later said, “I was surprised at the number of people who attended despite the rain, I’d say at least 125.”

In his opening speech he told the crowd the purpose of Black History Month is to pay tribute to the achievements Blacks have made to American society. He then challenged the gathering to work for civil justice, asking: “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

Next, President David Alexander, reminisced about last year’s procession. He said he was honored to attend and stressed the need for understanding between races.

The procession then moved to Bridges Auditorium where History Professor John Higginson, addressed the issue of “Blacks in South Africa.” He spoke of the “alliance” between America and the minority controlled governments in South Africa, which is based mainly on business interests, because South Africa is the seventh biggest foreign supporter of American businesses.

Higginson went on to speculate that a war in South Africa at this time could possibly lead to a world war, especially since South Africa now has nuclear capabilities. He suggested the situation is not only the responsibility of the South Africans, but also of Americans. It is time he said for people in the United States to start taking some responsible actions, such as becoming more aware of the problem through the news media and writing to our congressmen protesting the current administration’s support of South African policy.

The procession then moved to Seeley Mudd Library. The march to the library was punctuated by the singing of “We Shall Overcome” and other songs. At the new library Pitzer President Frank Ellsworth used as a basis for his speech the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. From King he drew the famous words: “This is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities, and of all creeds can live together as brother.” Quoting from Kennedy, he said: “We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home; but are we to say to the world and more importantly to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes, that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to the Negroes?” President Ellsworth then enlarged upon these quotes to stress the need for respect and cooperation between the races.

Ellsworth closed with words from Thoreau: “If you have castles in the air, your work need not be lost, that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” He charged the marchers to go build them.

The procession marched to Bauer Center, where the Gospel Choir sang three selections After that it was onto the ‘mound’ at Pitzer, where the choir performed two additional numbers including, ironically, “It’s Gonna Rain.”

The participants ended at the Office of Black Student Affairs, where they took refreshments and greeted the Dean of Black Students, Denise Rayford-Hayes.

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