Dallas Divests

Landing On Shaky Ground: Dallas’ Struggle to Divest

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the struggle against South African apartheid reached its height. Most certainly, the world was aware of apartheid since its inception in 1948, but by 1984, there was a heightened sense of understanding, engagement, and reaction to South African policies that discriminated against people of color. Between 1948-1960, the United States only responded minimally to segregationist policy in South Africa. The groups that took an interest in South Africa at this time were the Council on African Affairs and the American Committee on Africa. “To some extent, the leadership of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) also took an occasional interest in South Africa. However, none of these organizations had any visible impact during this period on the foreign policy establishment or within either political party” (Minter and Hill). During the 1950s the United Nations proposed a resolution “to establish a commission to study the racial situation in South Africa,” but they failed to provide sanctions against South Africa (Minter and Hill). In 1957, a group of 133 world leaders signed a statement encouraging countries and organizations to do their part in persuading the South African government to abandon apartheid, but there were no compelling government policies from any major power at this time that challenged the South African government.

The 1960s saw an increase in the United States’ involvement in South Africa. The source of the enhanced attention came from the infamous March 21, 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. “In May 1960, following the Sharpeville massacre that March, the American Committee on Africa called for a consumer boycott of South African goods and US government economic sanctions against South Africa, citing Albert Luthuli’s statement that ‘Economic boycott is one way in which the world at large can bring home to the South African authorities that they must either mend their ways or suffer for them’.  It also recommended that labour unions mount an industrial boycott, refusing to handle South African goods; that the government discourage new investment; and that companies already in South Africa adopt nondiscriminatory policies. In the first half of the 1960s, however, the campaign for economic disengagement from South Africa gained little momentum, despite its endorsement by the UN General Assembly in 1962”(Minter and Hill).

In 1966, Senator Robert Kennedy visited South Africa and made a speech to the National Union of South African students. In his speech, Kennedy compared the racial injustice of South Africa with the racial injustice within the United States (Minter and Hill).

By the 1980s, apartheid is unequivocally an issue of international concern, particularly in the wake of 1976, when approximately 50 policemen in Soweto attempted to stop students from attending a peaceful protest against South African education policies. Police used tear gas and warning shots to discourage students from attending. Some students resisted the police, and the police fired into the crowd. The police fire killed two students and injured hundreds more (Soweto Student Uprising).  The incidents that occurred in Sharpeville and Soweto brought negative international attention on the segregationist policies of South Africa.

In October 1984, Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu was presented the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent work against apartheid’s social and political malignancies (DMN). That same month, the U.N. Security Council voted on a resolution condemning South African apartheid policies (Culverson).  The following month, anti-apartheid demonstrations began outside South Africa’s embassy in Washington D.C. (DMN). “By the end of 1986, 21 American states, 68 cities, and 10 of the nation’s largest counties had adopted divestment [i.e. economic withdrawal] policies. Over 100 [American] education institutions had withdrawn nearly a half-billion dollars from companies profiting from apartheid” (Culverson).Additionally, in 1986, the United States passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, “which levied sanctions against the Republic of South Africa” (Politico). It is within this national and international context that Dallas struggled to find its own contribution to the anti-apartheid movement.

Dallas’ Struggle to Incorporate Sanctions

In the 1980s, Dallas was not only dealing with whether or not to join other cities in the decision to divest its funds from South African companies; it was dealing with unraveling the effects of its own segregationist past. “The 1980 census showed that minorities made up 81% of those in poverty in Dallas county, with African-Americans comprising 57% [of this group]. About 28% of white people in the county had four years or more of college, compared to 9% of African-Americans and 6% of Hispanics” (Williams and Shay). In addition to this, minorities had only recently been elected to various forms of city government.

In 1982, African American community activist, Marvin Crenshaw began visiting the primarily white Dallas City Council in order to encourage the council to take sanctions against South Africa. Crenshaw continued making weekly visits to the Council for the next four years. Eventually, with the leadership of African American council members, Diane Ragsdale and Al Lipscomb, the City Council passed resolutions in favor of partial divestment in 1985 and 1989. Divestment meant removing funds from South Africa and from organizations that did business with South Africa in order to show disapproval of apartheid policies and to encourage the South African government to dismantle those policies.

The decision to divest did not come quickly or easily. As early as September 1984, council members Diane Ragsdale and Al Lipscomb made attempts to “prohibit [and remove] city pension plan investments in companies that did business in South Africa”(DMN). Unfortunately, Ragsdale and Lipscomb were ahead of their time. Only one other member of the council, Paul Fieldman, supported the resolution that would place a ban on companies with ties to South Africa. The rest of the council did not see the merits of economic sanctions against South Africa at this time. The result of the vote was 8 to 3. To be sure, most—if not all—members of the council were against apartheid. However, they were not necessarily sold on the idea that the corruption of the South African government was something for Dallas to fix. They believed that the political and/or moral obligation of Dallas to sanction the South African government was minimal, at best. Although the U.S. Congress eventually passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Legislation Act in 1986, until then the official policy of the Reagan administration was constructive engagement (Broyles). In essence, the federal government saw sanctions as the least effective way of ending apartheid in South Africa. Instead, positive, i.e. constructive measures, were preferred to incentivize the South African government to rid itself of apartheid. Those in Dallas who resisted economic sanctions were typically against them because of their belief in constructive engagement or because of their belief that the Dallas city pension fund had an obligation to do what was most economically beneficial for fund members, instead of what would benefit people from another country.

In order to circumvent and defeat Ragsdale and Lipscomb’s idea about Dallas’ involvement in South Africa, two members of the city’s pension fund—Sam Harting and G.T. McGranahan— created a petition in late 1984 that they circulated throughout City Hall. The petition stated: “There are forces working to place social and moral restrictions on our fund investment program…While we do not disagree with efforts to correct social and moral issues, we are strongly opposed to using our fund to meet goals other than that for which the fund was established-to provide future security for city civilian employees”(DTH).

Lipscomb and Ragsdale became suspicious. They wondered how the petition was being circulated. Did people know what they were signing? Were they forced to sign it against their will? Were supervisors of city employees acting as the champions of the petition? At the time, the Dallas Times Herald asked Sam Harting about Lipscomb and Ragsdale’s concerns, and he assured the paper that the petition was not a part of any foul play. He also stated that he and other members of the retirement board believed that apartheid was wrong. He stated, “We’re not picking on the South Africa thing. We believe what’s going on over there is wrong. But our position is that any kind of action that would limit the money managers beyond our investment policies and applicable laws is wrong” (DTH). He added that the fund should be immune from any specific political issue or cause. In other words, the fund had to remain apolitical and possibly amoral.

The retirement board’s challenge to Ragsdale and Lipscomb proved somewhat effective in the short term. On Wednesday, May 29, 1985, Dallas mayor, Austin Starke Taylor, delayed the introduction of another resolution produced by Ragsdale and Lipscomb promoting divestment (DTH).  He stated that the next time that a resolution was presented to the council regarding South Africa, it should not include sanctions. Instead of advocating the policy of divestment, the resolution should only condemn South Africa’s racially exclusive policies. In response to the mayor, Ragsdale argued that a resolution without sanctions had no real power behind it. She argued that the mayor’s suggestion was a simple ploy to rid himself and the council of discourse regarding economic sanctions. Ragsdale responded to Mayor Taylor: “Anything short of divesture is unacceptable. This will continue to be an issue” (DTH).

A few weeks later, on June 12, 1985, community activist, Marvin Crenshaw, addressed the Dallas City Council. He spoke of the evils of apartheid. Although Crenshaw had done this several times in the past, more was at stake this time. There was a very real possibility that the council would pass a resolution without a single sanction. Diane Ragsdale was still pushing for divestment; however, she softened her demands. Her opponents had effectively argued that 89 percent of the city’s $427 million pension funds would be affected if divestment [i.e. removal of funds from organizations with ties to South Africa] occurred. Because of this, Ragsdale proposed that “the city pension board avoid South Africa-related companies in future investments” (DTH).  Her proposal would apply only to new investments.   Ragsdale created the modified resolution in conjunction with Mayor Pro Tem Annette Strauss, Councilman Bill Milkie, and Marvin Crenshaw. With Strauss and Milkie’s support, Ragsdale would have the six votes that her bill needed if the other members whom she expected to vote for her followed through.  In addition to Strauss and Milkie, Ragsdale expected Al Lipscomb, Lori Palmer, and Craig Holcomb to vote on her side (DTH). However, she knew that Bill Milkie had publicly vacillated over the bill he had helped her create, so she was not sure how he would vote until the moment of truth arrived. As if that were not enough tension to manage, Ragsdale was faced with the added stress of knowing that only 24 hours before the council meeting, the pension fund board met and “unanimously adopted a resolution opposing any measure telling them how to invest its money”(DTH).

When the council voted on Ragsdale’s less aggressive resolution, she won 6-5. However, the next day, The Dallas Morning News called the victory “strange and perhaps hollow”(DMN). The News’ description was entirely accurate.  The city pension fund was not divesting in the purest since of the term. They were not removing their funds from companies in which they currently had investments. They were simply planning not to create any future investments in companies involved in South Africa.

Additionally, one of Ragsdale’s most formidable opponents was still holding his ground. Sam Harting, chairman of the Employee Retirement Fund Board, [i.e. the city pension fund] stated that the board would make its decisions based on what was best for the pension fund, despite the council’s wishes.  Despite Harting’s threat, it was still a win for Ragsdale and the anti-apartheid movement.  It was not all of what she had originally hoped for; however, it was an important step towards progress.

Anti-apartheid discourse in Dallas continued. At the end of June, African National Congress member, Ben Mokoena, spoke at an anti-apartheid rally in Griggs Park. At the time, Mokoena was living as an exile in Lusaka, Zambia because the South African government had made membership in the African National Congress illegal. Mokoena had come to the United States in order to “persuade city governments and educational institutions to divest their stocks in companies that do business in South Africa” (DMN). Additionally, he addressed the United Nations Special Commission Against Apartheid during his trip, and he lead a workshop in Dallas about South Africa during the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention (DMN).

In September, the issue of divestment appeared before the Dallas Independent School District. The school board had planned on voting on a resolution condemning apartheid on September 11; however, the board chose to postpone the vote.  A 6-3 majority decided that the vote would take place in October. However, there is no record that the issue was ever revisited.

Approximately, one year later, Dallas City Council members Diane Ragsdale and community activists Roy Williams and Marvin Crenshaw held an anti-apartheid protest at Fair Park. Williams and Crenshaw had developed an organization entitled the Rainbow Coalition, which looked after various causes that were important to minority groups. On Friday, September 26, 1986, the Council members and the leaders of the Rainbow Coalition led a peaceful protest of approximately 40 people. One day later, The Dallas Morning News, described the protest as a “peaceful lunch time demonstration” (DMN).

Four months later, on January 21, 1987, a meeting occurred at Dallas’ Adolphus Hotel for the Dallas Harvard Club (Giddens). The Dallas Harvard Club was a co-ed group of Harvard University alumni living in Dallas.  During the meeting, mayoral candidates, Jim Collins and Fred Meyer, addressed the club with their plans for how to improve the city. Both men emphasized strategies for decreasing crime and increasing economic development.  However, neither mentioned South Africa, apartheid, or plans to support divestment. The candidates’ lack of discussion regarding South Africa caused African American Harvard grad and Dallas attorney, Eric Moyé, to question both candidates about their stance on apartheid. Specifically, Moyé asked the candidates “if they would support a city ordinance prohibiting the city from doing business with companies that had ties to South Africa” (Giddens). Both candidates replied that they believed that “South Africa was a matter of foreign policy, and that the city should let the federal government take care of matters of state” (Giddens).  Moyé responded by later telling D Magazine that Dallas should stop referring to itself as an “international city” if it planned on continuing to respond with timidity on international issues (Giddens).

Despite the mayoral candidates’ apathy toward the issue, later that year, the City Council passed an ordinance that required all potential city contractors to disclose any relationships with South Africa (DTH). More than likely, the ordinance was created to assist with the enforcement of the 1985 resolution that prevented the city from doing business in the future with companies that had South African ties. By forcing companies to disclose relationships with South Africa, the Council was strengthening its ability to enforce its 1985 resolution.

The Dallas City Council never fully divested. However, they created an additional ordinance to strengthen their 1985 and 1987 resolutions regarding South Africa. Instead of only promising not to make future investments in companies with ties to South Africa, Ragsdale proposed a resolution on February 8, 1989 prohibiting the city from creating contracts with organizations that had conducted business with South Africa within the last year. This meant that businesses could not cheat the system by recently being involved with South Africa and then stopping that involvement right before making a bid for a city contract. They had to prove that they had a one-year history of complete separation from South Africa. The only organizations that were exempt from this ordinance were those that provided food and medical supplies to South Africa (DTH).


Works Cited


Roy H. Williams and Kevin J. Shay, And Justice for All! The Untold History of Dallas, Fort Worth: CGS Communications, 1991.


 Broyles, Philip A. “The Impact of Shareholder Activism on Corporate Involvement in South  Africa during the Reagan Era,” International Review of Modern Sociology, vol. 28 no.   1(Spring 1998).

Culverson, Donald. “The Politics of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the United States, 1969-1986,” Political    Science Quarterly, vol.111, no.1(1996).

Minter, William and Sylvia Hill. Anti-apartheid solidarity in United States-South Africa relations: From the margins to the mainstream,” The Road to Democracy in South Africa,  Volume 3, International Solidarity, Part II.

Newspaper Articles

“Apartheid issue reborn-recent awareness spawns rallies, debates across U.S.,” The Dallas  Morning News, November 2, 1985.

“Apartheid opponents protest peacefully at fair,” The Dallas Morning News, September 27,  1986.

“Apartheid vote prompted bitter, angry exchanges.” The Dallas Morning News, June 13, 1985.

“City council faces S. Africa vote today,” Dallas Times Herald, June 12, 1985.

“City must take firm apartheid action,” Dallas Times Herald, January 8, 1989.

“City to examine S. Africa policy,” Dallas Times Herald, February 6, 1990.

“Effort to ban S. Africa ties faces council,” The Dallas Morning News, December 11, 1984.

“Mayor delays resolution assailing apartheid,” Dallas Times Herald, June 1, 1985.

“Petitions defend city retirement fund, S. Africa link,” Dallas Times Herald, December 25, 1984.

“S. African asks Dallasites to aid divestment,” Dallas Morning News, June 23, 1985.

Magazine Articles

Giddens, Sally. “The Selling of South Africa,” D Magazine, April 1987.

Web Pages

“House overrides Reagan apartheid veto, Sep. 29, 1986,” http://www.politico.com/story/2010/09/house-overrides-reagan-apartheid-veto-sept-29-1986- 042839.