Bob Ray Sanders

December 17, 2013

Fort Worth had role in anti-apartheid movement

The City Council moved from staunch resistance to very strong support.

Nelson’s Mandela long journey ended when he was laid to rest in his South African hometown Sunday, after several days of memorializing and celebration by his people.

Many in North Texas may not know, or may have forgotten, the role the city of Fort Worth played at the height of the anti-apartheid movement, when governments and institutions all over the world were urged to avoid any investments in South Africa.

There was much resistance in this country to that idea, including here in Cowtown.

But a strange thing happened in 1986, more than three years before Mandela was released from prison, that put Fort Worth in the forefront of municipalities facing the issue of South Africa and divestiture. It was a noble idea that met with doubt and outright opposition but ended in a decision — negotiated the old “Fort Worth way” — that captured the attention of the nation.

It started in August that year when three young black men, who quickly became known as “anti-apartheid activists,” came to City Hall and addressed the City Council, directing most of their remarks to the two black members, Mayor Pro Tem Bert Williams and Councilman Jim Bagsby.

Anthony Lyons, Charles Brown and Ricky Brodus basically accused the councilmen of having turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the suffering of their brothers and sisters in South Africa, who were being persecuted, jailed and killed. They wanted the council to pass a resolution denouncing apartheid and refusing to invest in any company doing business with South Africa.

I recall that Williams particularly took offense at the accusation and, to prove he cared about people in Africa, he pulled out his wallet, held up a picture of a young African boy and told how he donated money each month through an international children’s fund to support the child.

At the time Williams didn’t think divestiture was the proper course; Bagsby was noncommittal. The white members of the council were silent.

As days passed, black leaders of other organizations voiced support for a resolution. Mayor Bob Bolen, though against segregation, wasn’t sure about divesting city funds.

Within a few weeks, the two black council members were on board with divestiture, as was Councilman Garey Gilley. In September, the council unanimously appointed a 15-member committee to study the issue and adopted a resolution condemning South Africa’s racial segregation.

The council recommended that the City of Fort Worth Retirement Administration Board invest employee pension money in accordance with state law and in countries without domestic turmoil that threatened foreign investments.

Williams estimated that about 6 percent (or $21 million) of the employee retirement fund’s $347 million was invested in companies that did business with South Africa.

In April 1987, the council voted unanimously to require all companies doing business with the city to disclose any financial ties to South Africa — the first step to imposing economic sanctions against the country.

The South African vote was the second big turnaround the council made on a racial issue within months. Earlier in 1986, after the mayor strongly resisted, the council voted that the city would observe the Martin Luther King holiday.

Lyons, now a successful attorney, says now that he was amazed that so many cities around the country used the Fort Worth resolution as a model.

Brown, who now teaches golf to minority youths, said he was a nervous but confident 26-year-old in 1985, adding that he knew his city believed as he “that all people deserved to be treated with fairness and equality.”

The anti-apartheid vote was not a small feat, and all those who made it happen deserve to be remembered for it.

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