James E. Copple
The death of Nelson Mandela has allowed me to reflect on an era rapidly disappearing in the consciousness of our collective history. Apartheid was one of the many issues that confronted my generation. The war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, “women’s liberation” and apartheid jumped out of the headlines and moved many of us to action. From 1968 to 1975, I participated in dozens of demonstrations on all these issues including the largest anti-war demonstration, the May Day demonstration in Washington in 1970. We were not the names that captured national attention, nor were we the celebrities that lent their names and reputations to a cause supported by millions. We were the street advocates that carried signs, sang protest songs, refused to pay our taxes and were arrested more than once for our views.
Apartheid was a defining issue for me. As a young adult, I just didn’t get it – I didn’t understand how the global community could be complicit in the systemic evil perpetrated by the white controlled South African government. I attended demonstrations at the South African Embassy in Washington and at its consulate in Boston. I read every article I could read on Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC). I challenged faith leaders in my denomination to rethink its separate but less than equal approach to worship in the U.S. and South Africa. Nobody interviewed me and often I was simply dismissed as “well there goes Copple again.”
In the Spring of 1981, I found myself employed as the Public Relations Director for the Boston Ballet Company. Augustus Van Heerden, a black South African was one of our principal dancers. The South African Government invited the Ballet to tour South Africa. Initially there was great excitement in the company but I discovered Augustus was increasingly uncomfortable with the idea. The company sent me and a colleague to South Africa to evaluate the living conditions, the theatres where we would perform and to meet with officials. We quickly discovered that Augustus and three other dancers (Asian) would be required to stay in separate hotels and eat in different restaurants. We returned to the company and recommended that we not perform in South Africa. The company ignored our advice.
Plans for the tour moved ahead. I made a critical decision – one of the decisions that I have seldom discussed and hardly worthy of mention when comparing the sacrifice of so many. I decided as the PR director for the Ballet that I would leak the prospects of the tour to Maria Karagianis, a reporter at the Boston Globe. I met with her in a bar in South Boston and handed her the names and phone numbers of board members that could confirm the plans. Within 24 hours a story ran on the front page of the Globe announcing the company’s decision to tour South Africa. I decided that if anybody in leadership at the company asked me how the story leaked, I would tell them the truth. Strangely enough, nobody asked at the time. For the next week, I fielded questions from every major media outlet in the country. I took phone calls from the South African embassy encouraging us to stay the course and not cancel. I met with ANC members who were threatening to blow up our theatre in Boston. During all of this, I continued to provide information to the Boston Globe keeping the story alive for more than a week. After about a week of this media scrutiny, the Boston Ballet Company finally surrendered to public pressure and canceled the tour declaring that it is a shame “that the arts were taken over by politics.” That was one of their last naïve statements regarding their decision.
Three months later as I was leaving the Ballet to return to education, the president of the company and the board chair approached my desk as I was packing and handed me a bonus check for $1,000 for the way I handled the media storm and crisis. Then the president asked, “Jim, since you are determined to leave, I want to ask you a question I always wanted to ask but was afraid of the answer – did you leak the story of our tour of South Africa to the Boston Globe?” Without hesitation, I looked at him in the eyes and said, “Yes sir!” “I thought so, he replied.” I handed him the bonus check and he refused to take it. I never cashed it.
On the scale of things, it was a small protest against apartheid. It was symbolic but it was an important symbol for the arts community, the city of Boston, and for me. Nine years after my action against the Boston Ballet Company, Mandela would be released from prison and 13 years later he would be elected president of South Africa. The vestiges of apartheid would take time to dismantle and still remain a challenge for South Africa and Zimbabwe.
I never met Mandela but heard him speak once, read his books and watched how a man long ignored now had the attention of nearly the whole world.
As I reflect on Mandela’s legacy, I am proud to say to my children and grandchildren that on Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, my participation, along with millions of others who raised their voices in protest, a media leak that exposed the hypocrisy of an arts company, boycotts and letter campaigns encouraging American politicians to do the right thing, may have helped him on his walk. The Mandela I know through his writing and his public engagement would stop on his journey to embrace all of us who said NO to apartheid.
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