SMU Divestment Debate

Southern Methodist University has had a varied history with civil rights and progressive thought processes. It was not until the fall semester of 1962 that SMU admitted its first African-American undergraduate student, seventeen-year-old Paula Elaine Jones. (Payne 286) In 1966, SMU admitted its first African-American student-athlete, Jerry LeVias.(Payne 288-289) This was the era of the civil rights movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the spring of 1965, SMU students and faculty chartered a bus to Selma and joined the march that became a seminal event in the 1960s American civil rights struggle. (Bob Cooper, 21:55-23:00) Later that year Dr. King was invited to speak on SMU’s campus by the student senate. Initial pushback against having Dr. King speak on campus gave way when major donor and future governor of Texas—William P. Clements—gave his support to Dr. King’s visit to SMU. (Bob Cooper, 23:03-26:10) Due in no small part to the actions taken by faculty members of what is now known as the Perkins School of Theology and Campus Ministry, there were episodes of activism and protest among members of SMU’s student body culminating in the SMU administration enacting large-scale reform in response to demands made by African-American students. (Payne 294)

During the 1960s, the United States was not the only country struggling with civil rights issues. Across the Atlantic in South Africa, the oppressive Apartheid government was increasing its persecution of the non-White majority. Leaders from the American and South African civil rights movements did not see a difference between their struggles. Nearly two decades after Dr. King spoke at SMU, students and faculty began acting on the injustices that were occurring in South Africa. Students and faculty organized various events and proposed resolutions to be considered by the SMU Board of Trustees regarding divestment from South Africa. These actions may not have achieved all of their immediately desired goals, but they continued to assist in laying the foundation for increased campus awareness of civil rights struggles.

By the mid-1980s, anti-apartheid activism in the United States had spread to cities across the country with especially strong outpourings of discontent on university campuses—including SMU. The fall semester of 1985 saw a significant increase in activism on SMU’s campus beginning on Tuesday, October 8 with Apartheid Awareness Week. The event was created and sponsored by SMU Students Against Apartheid or SMUSAA. Some of the events scheduled during the Apartheid Awareness Week included: lectures given by SMU Law School Professor Howard Taubenfeld, Professor Alan Brombeng, and Reverends Randy Day, Linda Thomas, and Prince Nuvani Ntintli of Soweto, South Africa. (Pierce) The South African films “6 Days at Soweto” and “The Last Grave at Dimbaza” were also shown. (Cutrer)

At the beginning of Apartheid Awareness Week, SMU Student Senators met to discuss, and would go on to pass, a bill titled, “A Bill To Formally Request The Board Of Trustees To Consider The Divestment Of All University Funds From Corporations Investing In South Africa” (Ravkind). There had been an attempt at passing a bill with stronger language proposed two years previously, but it did not pass the Student Senate. (Pierce) The 1983 bill ‘demanded’ the divestment of SMU funds from South Africa and did not find success among the student senate due to its stronger language.

The week was successful in raising awareness on campus about the issue and resulted in a handful of articles being published in SMU’s campus newspaper The Daily Campus. One of these articles was titled “Practice what you’re preaching, fellas” written by Anthony Lewis, a syndicated columnist for The New York Times. Lewis’ article criticized the Reagan administration for its lack of outreach to the African National Congress and its leaders, despite members of the U.S. State Department urging discussion between the white minority apartheid government and black majority ANC. Lewis concluded his article by stating, “The United States government is not holding Pretoria accountable in the only way that will be understood: by speaking in one voice, acting on its stated principles, marshaling its economic and political resources against the racist system it condemns” (Lewis). The fact that this article was published on SMU’s campus at that time makes it likely that there were similar viewpoints among students on campus or at least within the editorial staff of The Daily Campus. One of the most vocal campus leaders against Apartheid was law school senator and chairman of SMUSAA: Arif Virji. Virji spoke with The Daily Campus after the Apartheid Awareness Week had concluded. He commented on the criticism coming from the South African government towards those divesting, “When the South African government speaks out against divestment, we know divestment hurts” (Cargill).

Not all SMU students supported divestment and the dismantling of the Apartheid government. On the same day that Apartheid Awareness Week began, senior SMU student Biff Sudcliff’s op-ed piece explaining his opinion on divestment was published in The Daily Campus. Writing under a pseudonym allowed the writer to not mince words as he expressed his disdain for the Anti-Apartheid movement, “It is well known that Nelson Mandela…is a communist, and will kill every last white in South Africa the very day apartheid is abandoned,” he continued, “Americans must continue to invest in South Africa to promote the well-being of blacks. We wealthy SMU students must buy Krugerrands by the million to insure the safety of blacks. I urge the SMU administration to invest in American companies in South Africa” (“Raw materials”). This article certainly evokes anger or irritation when read today. It is difficult to determine what response Biff’s opinion piece garnered among students, but the next year, the pen name would come under fire for a different episode. (SMU Student Paper) After Dr. King gave his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, this unnamed SMU student composed his own version of the speech. ‘Sudcliff’ wrote, “I have a dream that one day, I’ll be able to drive my Jaguar down Bishop Boulevard without once passing a Ford, or a Chevy, or a Toyota. I have a dream that all SMU students will rejoice from the mountaintops – diplomas and IBM contracts in hand” (“Biff has a dream”). The column was defended as satire but it created a stir on SMU’s campus and in national press.

After the conclusion of the Apartheid Awareness Week, the student senate resolution moved to the Board of Trustees. The final acknowledgment of the work of Arif Virji and other proactive students came on Thursday, October 31, 1985. Edwin L. Cox, then the chairman of the SMU Board of Trustees announced that he had received the resolution requesting that the board consider divestment from South Africa. The brief article explained that a committee would be created to consider SMU’s investments in South Africa. Cox described the goal of the committee as such, “This special committee will study the issue, hear from interested persons and evaluate what the University should do as a member of the higher education community” (Trustee’s). After this succinct press release, there is nary another mention of divestment at SMU. In fact, the Student Senate fails to even mention their proposal again in their minutes at all.

Activism on SMU’s campus was not solely limited to students. Faculty from various schools, especially the Perkins School of Theology participated in anti-segregation protests. (Bob Cooper 20:13-21:20) During the anti-apartheid protests that occurred on SMU’s campus, students often led the way. Faculty engaged in the manners in which they could, including Reverend Cooper and Rick Halperin’s XYZ. Ultimately, SMU did not divest despite student and faculty action.

Works Cited

Associated Press. “SMU Student Paper Apologizes for Parody of King Speech.” Associated Press, n.d. Web. 9 May 2017.

Cooper, Bob. Interview with Kathryn Loper and Lindsay Grossman. Dallas. March 28, 2017. http://blog.smu.edu/theanti-apartheidmovementinnorthtexas/interviews/.

Cargill, Stefanie. “Apartheid Awareness Week rallies to end.” The Daily Campus [Dallas, TX], 15 Oct. 1985, p. 1.

Cutrer, Katey. “Films show problems in Africa.” The Daily Campus [Dallas, TX], 15 Oct. 1985, p.1.

Lewis, Anthony. “Practice what you’re preaching, fellas.” The Daily Campus [Dallas, TX], 11 Oct. 1985, p. 4.

Payne, Darwin. One Hundred Years on the Hilltop: The Centennial History of Southern
Methodist University
. Dallas: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist U, 2016. Print.

Pierce, Lesley. “Awareness week allows variety of info, opinions to be presented.” The Daily Campus [Dallas, TX], 8 Oct. 1985, p. 1, 3.

Ravkind, Courtney, Student Senate Secretary. Student Senate Executive Committee Meeting Minutes, 8 Oct. 1985, Southern Methodist University.

Sudcliff, Buff. “Biff has a dream/nightmare.” The Daily Campus [Dallas, TX], 21 Jan. 1986, p. 4.

Sudcliff, Buff. “Raw materials have priority.” The Daily Campus [Dallas, TX], 8 Oct. 1985, p. 4.

“Trustee’s chairman considers divesting.” The Daily Campus [Dallas, TX], 31 Oct. 1985, p. 3.