Mandela’s Ripples

I pulled out my old green, black and red “Abolish Apartheid Divest Now” button.  It was once pinned to the lapel of the black tweed blazer I wore every day, part of the 80’s newspaper reporter uniform (costume, I suppose).

I got the button up in Buffalo.  Allegany County, where I lived and worked, had no such buttons for sale.  There’s a town there that vigorously proclaims – contrary to all evidence – that it is the birthplace of the Republican Party.  That kind of place.

Allegany County, however, is home to Alfred University, known for its ceramic engineering and art schools.  It was Alfred students; building shanties and asking trustees to divest that inspired me to voice an opinion.

The plywood and nylon shanty went up on the campus green, was knocked down, rebuilt.  The kids were accused of discovering their conscience as the end of spring term loomed.  I wrote several stories and a column on the topic.

“Michael Emch, one of the organizers of the anti-apartheid student group said, ‘If we get enough signatures I don’t see how the university can refuse to divest.’”

I did.  Although I was only a few years out of school myself, I managed a fair version of mossbacked condescension, even as I supported their cause.  (I blame it on the environment.  I needed to get the hell out of there.)

Alfred University was an island of urbanity in New York State’s most rural county, the one with neither an incorporated city nor shopping mall.  So it was with leftists, a concentration around Alfred and a few old hippies scattered in the hills.  So the button was signal, a beacon in the year Rambo: First Blood II played at the Lin-Ray in Wellsville for 12 weeks straight.

Not yet an activist, I felt like maybe I’d missed out on part of the college experience. Also, the button was a way of pushing back against the opinions of place and publisher.  It meant: “I probably disagree with you on everything.”  There may have been some actual concern for the plight of black South Africans in there somewhere.

Reagan was president; he opposed sanctions and divestment.  Corporations were running for cover and/or digging in their heels to a greater or lesser extent.  These were the years the Sullivan Principles gained traction. Campus activism was thought to be ten years dead, like Joe Hill.

Twenty-five years later, students demand their schools divest fossil fuels.  There wasn’t dope strong enough to imagine that in 1986.  In the past 30 years student and Socially Responsible Investment activists have wrought global good on dozens of issues with tools forged in a prison cell by Nelson Mandela.

By 1990, I was an activist in DC, watching live tee vee as Mr. Mandela walked free.  In Boston that June, I deliberately stood for an hour in a patch of poison ivy (wearing sandals, there was no where else to stand) to see him speak.  Mr. Mandela was inaugurated on my 33rd birthday, an inspiration as I kicked off my Jesus Year.

There’s nothing I can tell you about Nelson Mandela that’s not better written in his obituaries.  All I report is that he reached out of his island prison, touched the water and in a distant hemisphere and disparate society, Michael Emch felt the ripple.  So did I.

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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