By Andrea Klick, student reporter
Edward Perkins spent his life and career in government creating change for underrepresented populations in the U.S. and around the world. Perkins, who graduated with his masters and Ph.D. from USC Price and served as the first Black U.S. ambassador to South Africa during the final decade of apartheid, died Nov. 7 at a hospital in Washington. He was 92 and passed from complications after a stroke, according to The New York Times.
During Perkins’ childhood, he moved throughout small towns in Louisiana to Pine Bluff, Ark. in sixth grade and finally completed his high school years in Portland, Ore. It was in Arkansas, however, that Perkins first learned about the country that came to define much of his career.
A teacher at the heavily segregated Merrill High School introduced Perkins and his class to the racial caste system in South Africa, and told them Black people there experienced even worse discrimination than they already faced in the United States. She encouraged her students to donate whatever money they could to the African National Congress to support the movement toward equality.
That same teacher noticed Perkins’s intelligence and abilities and told him he could have an impact on the world, even if others thought his race would hold him back. Perkins took those words of affirmation and aimed to beat the odds.
After high school, he joined the Army and later the Marine Corps in hopes of seeing the world and earning money for college through the G.I. Bill. During his service, he spent time in Korea, Hawaii and Japan and enjoyed trying new foods and experiencing different cultures.
He later took a civilian job with the Army in Taiwan, where he met and later eloped with his wife in 1962. While in Taipei and Okinawa, Perkins enrolled in a remote University of Maryland program that allowed him to earn his bachelor’s degree in public administration and political science in 1967.
After graduating, Perkins started his government career by joining the U.S. Agency for International Development and worked from Thailand. Perkins explained in his memoir “Mr. Ambassador: Warrior for Peace” that his appointment was an anomaly since wealthy. Ivy League educated white men made up most Foreign Service positions at the time. A previous professor at Lewis & Clark College told him to aim for “more realistic” careers, like teaching or medicine, but Perkins was determined to pursue his interest in government.
“It was kind of a lonely existence in terms of knowing that you’re not accepted as part of the status quo,” Perkins said in a 2007 interview with USC. “Clearly, the State Department was not a friendly place for minorities. We were not expected to rise to higher levels or get glamorous or difficult assignments.”
Perkins passed the difficult Foreign Service exam in 1971 and became a diplomat; when seeking an ambassadorship, Perkins enrolled in our remote USC public policy program, which at the time was in Washington D.C., where he earned his masters and doctoral degrees in public administration while working in the nation’s capital.
His role as the first U.S. Black envoy to South Africa proved to be the most difficult position he held. Many leaders, including civil rights activists Rev. Jesse Jackson, urged him not to accept the position from President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Jackson said at the time that Perkins’s role as an intermediary between the two countries would be “the same humiliating posture of asking a Jewish person to be a messenger between Hitler and a reactionary administration.” Still, Perkins accepted the post after his wife reminded him he agreed when joining the Foreign Service to go wherever he was needed.
White South Africans hissed at Perkins on the streets because of his race, and white leaders were openly racist and hostile toward him as well. Perkins had icy interactions with South African President P.W. Botha, who viewed the ambassador’s goals of attending church services, visiting townships and interacting with Black and white South Africans as interference. Despite the push back, Perkins held integrated events and met with Black and White residents.
Other Black leaders worried the appointment of a Black ambassador was a move by the Reagan administration to avoid substantive action in South Africa – around the world, the U.S. government joined countries in a continued debate over their roles in ending apartheid.
Perkins remained in South Africa until 1989, as cracks started to develop in the apartheid ruling system. He described that he took “carefully chosen shots” in order to create change within the country, including his attendance at the Delmas Treason Trial, an important political trial that determined the fates of six Black men who violated the law by pushing for new structures of government.
“What I saw in South Africa was kind of like where I’d been,” Perkins said in 2007. “I had some idea about it, though I’d never come across a situation where religion, politics and sociology were all boiled into one pot, a sociology bent on affirming the daily superiority of one people on the backs of 32 million Black people.”
Black leaders grew to appreciate Perkins as he continued showing up as a U.S. leader and a Black man supporting anti-apartheid actions, including attending a church service where he sang along to the outlawed Black national anthem. His leadership also helped hasten the independence process for neighboring Namibia and the removal of South African troops there. In the years after he left, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and elected the nation’s first Black president, bringing an end to apartheid.
Perkins went on to occupy high roles within the State Department, serving as a U.S. ambassador to Liberia and Australia and later director of the Foreign Service, where he recruited more women, people of color and people from rural areas like Appalachia as well as Avraham Rabby, the first blind person in the diplomatic corps.
Perkins also worked as a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a U.S. representative to the United Nations Security Council before he retired from the Foreign Service in 1996. Over the next 12 years, he worked at the University of Oklahoma, directing the International Programs Center and teaching geopolitics courses.
Perkins left a remarkable legacy. He will be remembered for his many accomplishments in the Foreign Service and his work to make the organization more welcoming of a diverse group of candidates.