|When he first heard of South Africa’s apartheid system, Edward J. Perkins was a high school student in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
To a country boy reared on his grandparents’ farm in rural Louisiana, Pine Bluff felt like the big city. Until he moved there in 1942 to join his mother and stepfather, the 14-year-old Perkins had never seen a porcelain toilet, a building more than a few stories high or a church with stained-glass windows.
He still had to sit at the back of the bus and avoid certain restaurants. But in Pine Bluff there were black doctors, lawyers, pharmacists and dentists to serve as role models.
At his segregated high school, Perkins found strict teachers and high standards. Students were expected to read Latin and to memorize the Gettysburg Address. They were introduced to the writings of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. They heard from successful alumni at school assemblies.
It was a history teacher at Merrill High who first told Perkins about the racial caste system in South Africa � describing conditions even worse than what they experienced daily as blacks in the American South. She urged her students to donate their small change to the African National Congress, to support its fight for equality.
Perkins’ teachers let him know that a bright, studious boy like him could make a difference. He could do just about anything, despite his race, they told him. The young Perkins believed them.
Still, no one imagined that a black boy born in 1928, the grandson of an illiterate former slave, would go on to become the U.S. ambassador to that far-off land described by his teacher � and help bring South Africa closer to shedding its entrenched system of racial oppression.
When Perkins was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 to serve in South Africa, his first thought was of that long-ago lesson imparted by a high school history teacher.
“We were black teenagers in the middle of Arkansas, young people discriminated against ourselves, black boys and girls who could barely find South Africa on a map, but we contributed our pennies and nickels for this noble fight,” Perkins writes in his new memoir, Mr. Ambassador: Warrior for Peace (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006).
Perkins’ journey from the family farm in the segregated South to a Ph.D. from USC to representing his country on the international stage was the product of hard work, focus and a refusal to be held back by racial barriers. He credits his grandmother � optimistic where his grandfather had sometimes seethed in frustration � with forming his unfailingly can-do attitude.
Though she never learned to read, Sarah Stovall Noble valued the written word and viewed education as her grandson’s ticket out of poverty. She made young Edward pick up every little scrap of newspaper lying by the side of the road and read it to her.
From his office at the University of Oklahoma, where he is now a chaired professor of geopolitics and executive director of the International Programs Center, the 78-year-old career diplomat reflects on the past. “I guess some people would ask me, ‘Why aren’t you bitter, growing up in a place where the races were separate and certainly economically unequal?’ I look back at my grandfather today, and I think he probably could have been a great entrepreneur or even president of the United States. But my grandmother said, ‘You take what you’ve got and you keep on walking. If you stop in the middle of the road, you won’t go anywhere.’”
At 17, after living alone in Pine Bluff for two years, Perkins followed his mother and stepfather to Portland, Ore., where he finished high school at an integrated, though far from prejudice-free, campus. He seized on the idea of becoming a diplomat after hearing from consuls general posted in Australia, Canada and South America speaking at a local international relations club. By the time U.S. Secretary of Commerce Henry A. Wallace, a former vice president under FDR, gave a talk in Portland, Perkins had made up his mind. He approached the senior statesman and announced his plan to become an American ambassador.
“I do not know what Secretary Wallace thought in 1947 of a black teenager’s chances of getting into the Foreign Service. I did not ask him; I just told him I intended to do it,” Perkins writes in his memoir. “I had hitched my dream to the Foreign Service, and I never let go.”
The young man’s mentors � of which there were many, ranging from teachers to local businessmen � urged him to go to college. As a black man, they assured him, he could not hope to get ahead without a degree. But after graduating from high school, Perkins joined the Army � hoping to see the world and continue his education later on the G.I. Bill.
And see the world he did. In South Korea and Japan he traveled extensively, absorbing the local culture and language, eating unfamiliar dishes like raw fish and sea slugs. During this time, Perkins began what would become a lifelong passion: the study of Asian philosophy.
Later on, his style as an ambassador would be marked by this grassroots approach � touring the South African townships, attending local church services and even studying Afrikaner culture in an attempt to better understand the country’s diverse population.
Discharged from the Army in 1953, Perkins returned to Portland and enrolled in Lewis and Clark College. But wanderlust returned, and after a year studying political science and economics, he re-enlisted � this time in the Marine Corps. Perkins served as a marine in Korea, Hawaii and Japan. Discharged again in 1958, he took a civilian job as a personnel officer with the Army and Air Forces Exchange Services in Taiwan. There, he met his future wife, Lucy Cheng-mei Liu.
In love, Perkins collided head-on with more racial barriers. Liu’s traditional Taiwanese family did not want her to marry an American, especially not a black American. The couple secretly married in Taipei, causing a break with the family that did not completely heal until after the birth of their two daughters: Katherine Karla, born in Japan in 1965, and Sarah Elizabeth, born in Bangkok in 1969.
By then Perkins was focusing once again on his Foreign Service ambitions and, necessarily, on his education. He enrolled in a program through the University of Maryland that allowed him to complete his bachelor’s degree while stationed in Taipei and Okinawa. In 1967, as a way to get his foot in the door at the State Department, he joined the U.S. Agency for International Development. His first post was in Thailand at the height of the war in nearby Vietnam.
“In the 1970s, the Foreign Service was known as a closed, elite organization of white, Ivy League men,” Perkins writes in his memoir. For a black man, a woman or any other minority to aspire to a diplomatic career was absurd.
Yet, he says, “I don’t remember ever thinking I couldn’t do it.” Years earlier, when a professor at Lewis and Clark had advised him to set more realistic goals � becoming a teacher or doctor � Perkins only grew more determined to succeed.
In 1971, he passed the challenging Foreign Service exam and became a diplomat. The ambassadorships Perkins had dreamed of, however, were far from assured for a hardworking and driven newcomer of any race, and especially not for a black officer entering the clubby, old-boys network. “It was kind of a lonely existence in terms of knowing that you’re not accepted as part of the status quo,” Perkins recalls. “Clearly, the State Department was not a friendly place for minorities. We were not expected to rise to higher levels or get glamorous or difficult assignments.”
In addition to the everyday insults, being mistaken for waiters and the like, black Foreign Service officers in those days rarely got plum assignments; they were mostly relegated to Africa postings.
With the handful of other black officers then in the Foreign Service, Perkins founded the Thursday Luncheon Group to advocate for the rights of women and minority employees. The group was not shy with its demands. It went all the way to the top, petitioning Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to elevate the status of the Foreign Service’s Equal Employment Opportunity office. Kissinger complied, giving the group its first major victory in a fight that many members would continue for the rest of their careers.
Perkins’ real chance to make the State Department more accessible to women and minorities came many years later, after his time in South Africa. Serving as director general of the Foreign Services in 1989, among other reforms he created a scholarship program for minority college students conditional on their entering the Foreign Service after graduation.
“It was not like his achievements were automatic or easy,” says John W. H. Gravely, a longtime friend and Thursday Luncheon Group co-founder, of Perkins’ rise, “especially since he was duking it out with racial policies, which sometimes rub people the wrong way and can damage a career.
“That this did not damage him says even more about his ability to move forward,” Gravely adds. “Given all those considerations, his career was fairly remarkable.”
During the early years of his Foreign Service, Perkins managed to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in public administration from USC, studying at a satellite campus in Washington, D.C. He kept a grueling schedule: rising at 3 a.m. to work on his dissertation (it was on Kissinger’s management techniques), then running five miles before getting his two daughters ready for school and catching a bus to his office at the State Department.
He shared a strong bond with his USC classmates, most of whom were also full-time public servants. “We worked together very closely, helped each other out and commiserated,” Perkins says. “We all realized we could only succeed with the concept of community learning. Of the 35 of us who started the doctoral program together, only six or seven completed it.”
A 1987 article in Time magazine titled “Quiet Sting: a Diplomat Makes His Mark” described Perkins as “cultivating a low profile, then discarding it at strategic intervals to issue carefully chosen shots.” He had served as a political reporting officer in Ghana during a military coup and as ambassador to Liberia during an equally turbulent time in that country. Then came the call to go to South Africa.
Few people knew much about Perkins, other than that he was a black career diplomat, but the attacks came from all sides. Congress had just passed stricter sanctions against South Africa � over the veto of President Reagan, who advocated a policy of “constructive engagement.” The appointment of a black ambassador was seen by many as a transparent attempt by the administration to appease its critics.
Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson urged Perkins not to go, likening him to a Jew “carrying messages between a reactionary administration and Hitler,” according to a Washington Post article from the period. But Perkins believed his duty was to do as the president asked.
In South Africa, white men and women hissed as he walked down the street. Not because he was the U.S. ambassador, but simply because he was a black man. Predictably, the ruling white regime was hostile to him, and Perkins endured racist insults from then-President P. W. Botha himself.
But black activists also treated him with open disdain. To them, he was the lackey of an administration that propped up the virulently racist South African regime � nothing less than a traitor to his own race.
Perkins soon began issuing those “carefully chosen shots.” He attended the Delmas Treason Trial. The most important political trial since that of Nelson Mandela himself, it concerned the fate of six black men whose only crime had been advocating alternative structures of government. Perkins’ presence in the courtroom made a powerful political statement, because the United States ambassador who had come out to support the anti-apartheid cause happened to be black himself. He sang along to the outlawed black national anthem at a church service. Black leaders began warming to him.
“What I saw in South Africa was kind of like where I’d been,” Perkins says. “I had some idea about it, though I’d never come across a situation where religion, politics and sociology were all boiled into one pot � a sociology bent on affirming the daily superiority of one people on the backs of 32 million black people.”
For the Perkins family, life in Africa was a series of scary adventures, the most harrowing being the time revolutionaries held Lucy Liu Perkins and their two daughters at gunpoint as a coup d’�tat gained steam in Ghana.
She recalls offering the soldier a bite to eat. He refused the lunch, but grabbed some money and a shortwave radio.
By the time Perkins left South Africa in 1989 to become director general of the Foreign Service, he had helped hasten a process that led to the independence of neighboring Namibia and the pullout of South African troops there. The apartheid regime was on its knees. A year later, Nelson Mandela was released from jail and the ban on opposition groups, including the African National Congress, was lifted.
Perkins went on to two more major ambassadorships: In 1992 he was named U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and U.S. representative in the UN Security Council; and from 1993 to 1996 he served as the Clinton Administration’s ambassador to Australia.
In the forward to Perkins’ memoir, George P. Schultz, who had been secretary of state during Perkins’ tenure in South Africa, wrote, “his professionalism won respect on all sides and helped lay the groundwork for the end of apartheid.”
David L. Boren, former U.S. senator and now president of the University of Oklahoma, wrote in his introductory remarks to the book, “In my opinion, no person who was not a South African citizen played a greater role in the dismantling of apartheid and the transition to full democracy than Edward Perkins.”
Perkins’ own assessment of his achievements is more modest.
“The U.S. did not make the total difference in the fall of apartheid. There were lots of elements ongoing,” he says. “What the U.S. accomplished was, here’s the most powerful nation in the world turning itself around and saying if we don’t become proactive in pushing for the end of apartheid, it might go on for a long time.”
Cindy Chang is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer whose work regularly appears in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. If you have questions or comments on this article, please send them to <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
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