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GRIID Class on US Social Movements – Part VI: The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Grand Rapids

March 4, 2021

In the 6th week of the class on US social movements, we looked at the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement in Grand Rapids, using a chapter from my forthcoming book, A People’s History of Grand Rapids. 

The Chapter that people read was called The Other Eighties, which looked at the three major movements from that decade, the Anti-Nuclear Freeze Movement, the Central American Solidarity Movement and the Anti-Apartheid Movement. The chapter began with the Anti-Apartheid Movement and that is what the discuss was primarily centered on.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Grand Rapids is based on the articles on that topic from the Grand Rapids People’s History Project. In addition to those articles, there is an archival resource section with 92 pages of archival materials on the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Grand Rapids.

The class discussed then history of the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement, and the US Government position, which was complicit with the Apartheid regime. We then discussed when the movement began in Grand Rapids, which was largely due to statewide organizing, right around the time of the Soweto Massacre in 1976. The American Friends Service Committee (The Quakers) had begun doing educational and organizing work in Grand Rapids in the late 1970s. However, the American Friends Service Committee eventually dissolved in Grand Rapids, which led to several people coming together to form the Institute for Global Education (IGE).

IGE became the primary clearinghouse for organizing around South Africa, even though there were numerous other groups doing solidarity and educational work. However, beginning in 1983, the task force on South Africa began talking to organizations in the community to get support to pressure the City of Grand Rapids to formally divest from companies doing business in South Africa. Several organizations signed on to the campaign and wrote letters that influenced a resolution that was crafted by the Community Relations Commission and then put before the Grand Rapids City Commission. In 1984, the City adopted the resolution and moved their finances out of what was then the Old Kent Bank and into another bank that had no direct connection to South African.

From there the campaign got the Grand Rapids Public Schools to adopt a similar position in 1985. The same organizers then tried to get the Kent County Commission to adopt the same position, but in this instance they were unsuccessful. 

We also talked about an effort by students and faculty at Calvin College to divest from South Africa. This campaign was important, in large part because the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) had a long history of supporting the Apartheid regime in South Africa and Calvin College was a CRC college. After more than a year of organizing, Calvin College formally divested from South Africa, which was a significant victory.

Below is a timeline used for week 6.

In addition, we did talk briefly about the Anti-Nuclear Movement and the Central American Solidarity Movement, which also were connected to the work of the Institute for Global Education, although the direct action aspect of these movements were autonomous of IGE. Several participants commented on the importance of having examples of how people were involved in these movements right here in Grand Rapids, which makes it seem more real in some ways, since it was not in some distant city, state or country.

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