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Is apartheid rousing black America? Black leaders first to enlist in protests, but rank and file slower to join

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 1985

San Francisco

Black leadership has pushed South African apartheid to the top of the US foreign policy agenda, but grass-roots support from the black community is slower to take hold. Ethel M. Mathews, for example, a welfare-rights organizer in Atlanta, calls current anti-apartheid demonstrations a ``bandwagon'' she's not ready to hop on.

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``We've got hunger and poverty here. . . . These should be worked on first,'' Mrs. Mathews says. Poor blacks are often more interested in their own economic survival than political activism, she says.

On the other hand, the anti-apartheid demonstrations have ``been the greatest mass movement since the civil rights movement,'' says Mary Frances Berry, member of the US Civil Rights Commission and one of the first people to be arrested in the demonstrations that began last November at the South African Embassy in Washington.

``This has indeed prompted the first awakening of social consciousness in this decade, a decade barren of social consciousness,'' agrees Eleanor Holmes Norton, former chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She was arrested with Dr. Berry in the first of the demonstrations sponsored by TransAfrica, a lobbying group for third-world issues.

At first, demonstrators wanted to publicize the disappearance of 14 trade unionists in South Africa, Ms. Norton says. But the action snowballed into an anti-apartheid vigil that continues daily in different locations around the country, she explains. It was not intended to be linked to domestic black issues.

But US black leaders say this movement cannot help but galvanize blacks politically.

Congress's consideration this week of sanctions against South Africa -- and South Africa's attention to the movement here -- are giving blacks a feeling of renewed political vigor, says Ron Walters, deputy campaign manager of Jesse Jackson's presidential bid and a professor of political science at Howard University.

``This is a movement not just tailored to the specific issue [of apartheid], but it's making a powerful statement against the Reagan administration,'' he says. The administration says working with the South African government can accomplish more reform than punishing it.

Mr. Walters characterizes the movement as a black one -- though many whites have been involved in the large demonstrations on campuses this spring -- because blacks here have historically been aware of concerns of black Africans.

America's black leaders say today's movement is part of a longstanding anti-apartheid sentiment among US blacks which dates back to the early 1900s. This sentiment was evident in 1962 when the late Martin Luther King Jr. called for sanctions against the South African government, and again seven years ago when black Howard University divested its South African holdings.

American blacks aren't far removed from their own civil rights struggle, so they can readily sympathize with the black African struggle. More recently, Americans have been roused by the recent increase in racial unrest and bloodshed in South Africa, where more than 350 black South Africans lost their lives in the past year.