African Americans, Pan-Africanism, and the Anti-Apartheid Campaign to Expel South Africa from the 1968 Olympics

Article excerpt

In a 4 March 1968 article, Jet magazine journalist Simeon Booker credited the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) 16 February 1968 decision to allow the Republic of South Africa to send a team to the 1968 Olympics with raising African Americans' awareness of the United States government's support of South Africa's apartheid regime. Booker used the article to elaborate on U.S./South African relations and concluded that the United States Olympic Committee's (USOC) support for South Africa's participation in the games was typical of American foreign policy toward Africa. Although the U.S. State Department recently condemned apartheid, South Africa's racial segregation laws, U.S. aid and investment continued to strengthen South Africa's economy and white supremacist government. As of 1968, American investment in South Africa exceeded $800 million, and despite its pronouncements, the State Department did not support calls for disinvestment or sanctions against its Cold War ally. Booker argued that the state continued to support South Africa because African Americans had not demonstrated consistent interest in combating apartheid. The awareness stimulated by the international campaign to expel South Africa from the 1968 Olympics, however, presented a promising opportunity for African Americans to join the anti-apartheid movement in mass. Booker wondered, however, if African Americans would defy the U.S. Cold War consensus and urge American athletes to join a developing international anti-apartheid boycott of the Olympics. (1)

Booker's assessment of African American involvement in the international anti-apartheid in sports campaign exemplified the politics of Pan-Africanism among U.S. civil rights activists in the late 1960s. By the time Jet published the article, its first detailed discussion of the issue, nationalists and Black Power intellectuals had been active in the campaign for several months. Although their involvement was typical of nationalists' uncompromising support of African liberation, their role in the campaign was absent from the traditional African American press's discussion of the development. For instance, JET's article did not reference the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), a Black Power effort to raise awareness of institutionalized racism by organizing an African American boycott of the 1968 Olympics. In late 1967, the OPHR also endorsed the anti-apartheid in sports movement. The vast majority of liberals, although sympathetic, initially opposed the OPHR because the American public patriotically followed the U.S.' Olympic competition against the Soviets, its Cold War counterpart. (2) After SAOC's was invited to the games in February 1968, these Cold War concerns continued to shape liberals' response to the call to protest apartheid's presence at the Olympics.

Like many liberals, Booker and Jet read nationalists and Black Power as separatist, and thus antithetical to integration, the perceived dominant objective of the Black Freedom Movement. Consequently, as historian Francis Nesbitt notes, nationalists were often summarily dismissed and their activism viewed as insignificant. Likewise, Booker's omission of their involvement, intentional or not, belittled the influence of nationalists, whose efforts during the early Cold War were one of the few challenges to an ambivalent U.S. foreign policy toward Africa and raised awareness of Pan-African issues.

By the mid-1960s, they were joined by the Black Power generation and progressives who shared their Pan-African sensibilities. (3) Contrary to Booker's omission, nationalists were influential in the rejuvenation of public African American interest in African liberation in the 1960s, including the anti-apartheid in sports campaign.

As notable, Booker hinted that the catalyst for the development of widespread African American interest in the campaign was a pledge by thirty-two African nations to boycott the Olympics, if SAOC was allowed to participate. …