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How a native New Orleanian fought apartheid

16th December 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Fritz Esker
Contributing Writer

While many people are aware of recently deceased human rights icon Nelson Mandela’s struggles against apartheid, many are unaware that a native New Orleanian played a key role in creating American opposition to apartheid.

Caroline Hunter was born in the 7th Ward on Derbigny St. She attended Xavier Prep and graduated from Xavier University of Louisiana with a degree in chemistry. After graduation, she was recruited by Polaroid to work in their labs in Cambridge, Mass. In 1970, after working there for over two years, she was notified by her friend, co-worker and future husband Ken Williams that he saw a mockup of a South African passbook.

Caroline Hunter, center, with Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

Caroline Hunter, center, with Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

South Africa’s segregationist ruling party, as part of its discrimination against blacks, required them to carry passbooks at all times. If a black person was caught without a passbook, he or she could be arrested. It was such a symbol of oppression that one of Mandela’s first public acts of defiance was to burn his passbook.

Hunter and Williams concluded that their company was doing photography work for the South African government and aiding them in creating passbooks. When Williams inquired about the matter with corporate headquarters, he was told not to worry about it. The duo printed out a leaflet titled “Polaroid Imprisons Black People.”

The leaflet was distributed to bulletin boards, restroom stalls, and in front of corporate parking spaces. Hunter and Williams, young and naive, assumed that since Polaroid had the reputation of a socially liberal company that a dialogue would begin and Polaroid would cease its work for South Africa.

Instead, Polaroid’s corporate office denied the allegations when questioned by other employees, then released a statement via a lawyer that all South Africans required passbooks and that it had nothing to do with apartheid. However, Hunter and Williams became acquainted with Rev. Chris Nteta, a South African divinity student at Harvard, who publicly stated (at the risk of deportation or retribution from the South African government) that the passbooks were used to aid apartheid and were exclusively issued to blacks.

Hunter and Williams (now deceased) led a 7-year boycott against Polaroid. They encouraged people to not buy any Polaroid products or invest in Polaroid stocks. Their appeal to people was simple: “You don’t have to be black; you just have to be human.”

Their efforts were more than just grassroots work. They testified before both the United Nations and Congress about American corporations profiting from assisting the South African government. They met with Congressman Ron Dellums (D-CA), who became Congress’ most passionate opponent of apartheid. After a long struggle, Congress eventually passed Dellums’ bill The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act that prohibited the United States from doing business with South Africa. The bill had such broad bipartisan support that Congress was able to override a veto from President Reagan. “We felt South Africa was a bully,” Hunter said. “And the bully had a lot of help from the United States and Britain and other western countries.”

After Mandela was released from prison, he toured the United States in 1990. His first stop was Boston and Hunter was able to listen to him speak then attend a private reception with Mandela and other guests. She spoke to him briefly and said that in person, he radiated a quiet dignity and humility. “You somehow sensed this was a person who was a cut above,” Hunter said.

Now, Hunter devotes her efforts to the Ken Williams Memorial Scholarship Fund, which provides scholarship money to students in need who have demonstrated a strong background in social justice or community service. She says young people today have so many more tools at their disposal with the Internet and social media than she and Williams did when they began their campaign in 1970. They shouldn’t be intimidated by their youth or inexperience. “When we started, we knew nothing about political activism,” Hunter started.

This article originally published in the December 16, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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