When Edward J. Perkins was a student at a separate school in Pine Bluff, Ark., His history teacher taught the class about brutal racial oppression in South Africa. It was even worse, they told the students, than what they experienced as black people in the southern United States.
The teacher urged her students to donate what little change they had to the African National Congress, to support its fight against white minority rule.
Dr Perkins often recalled this lesson when he became the first black US ambassador to South Africa, serving over the bitter past decade of the system that had come to be called apartheid.
“We were black teenagers in the middle of Arkansas, young people discriminated against against ourselves, black boys and girls who could barely find South Africa on a map,” he recalls in one. memory, “Mr. Ambassador: Warrior for Peace ”, written with Connie Cronley and published in 2006.
“But,” he added, “we have brought our pennies and pennies for this noble fight.”
Ambassador Perkins died on November 7 in a Washington hospital. He was 92 years old. Her daughter Katherine Perkins said the cause was complications from a stroke.
Dr. Perkins, whose grandparents were born into slavery, rose to senior levels in the State Department.
In addition to his ambassadorial posts, which also included Liberia and Australia, he became director general of foreign service and helped recruit young officers beyond the Ivy League. He became United States Ambassador to the United Nations and, in 1992, served as United States Representative to the United Nations Security Council.
After retiring from the Foreign Service in 1996, he spent a dozen years at the University of Oklahoma, leading its Center for International Programs and teaching geopolitics.
“We just lost a giant of diplomacy,” wrote Susan Rice, who served as the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations in the Obama administration, on Twitter following the death of Dr. Perkins. “Pioneer among African Americans, champion of a diverse foreign service.”
In addition to recruiting people of color, women, and people from places like the Appalachians, Ambassador Perkins oversaw the hiring of Avraham Rabby, the diplomatic corps’ first blind person. (Mr. Rabby died in May at the age of 77.)
His most difficult assignment was South Africa, where he was appointed Ambassador by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
The United States, like much of the world, was embroiled in a heated debate over how to try to end apartheid. Congress had overturned a Reagan veto and imposed severe economic sanctions.
Reagan had tried to push back the vote by promising to impose sanctions on his own – and by appointing Dr Perkins as the first black ambassador to South Africa.
Concerned that Reagan appointed a black ambassador as a symbolic gesture because he did not want to take on South Africa in a substantial way, some black leaders urged Dr Perkins to decline the appointment. Among them was the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader, who told reporters that having Dr Perkins mediate between Reagan and President PW Botha of South Africa would put him in “the same humiliating position. to ask a Jewish person to be a messenger between Hitler and a reactionary administration.
But Dr Perkins’ wife reminded him that as a member of the Foreign Service he vowed to go wherever needed. He accepted the posting.
“Apartheid South Africa was on fire around me,” he wrote in his memoir.
When he presented his credentials to President Botha, the two immediately embarked on a test of willpower.
“President Botha was standing a step above me,” wrote Dr Perkins, a towering 6-foot-3 figure.
“I suspect the ceremony was choreographed so that he towers over me and I look up at him,” he added, “but he’s a short man and we looked each other straight in the eye. I was determined not to look away until he did.
When the Ambassador handed in his credentials, Mr. Botha must have lowered his eyes, in which case he lost the gaze contest.
Their relationship remained freezing for the duration of Ambassador Perkins’ tour. He had made it clear that he intended to visit South African townships, attend church services and meet whites and blacks. Mr. Botha viewed this as interference.
“He put his finger in my face,” recalls Dr. Perkins of a meeting, which he said “was like putting his finger on Reagan’s face. Mr. Botha “carried on,” Dr. Perkins said, before storming out of the room. Despite Mr. Botha’s objections, the ambassador met black and white South Africans and even hosted integrated receptions.
He remained in South Africa until 1989, when cracks began to appear in the country’s repressive regime. Nelson Mandela was released from prison the following year, and in 1994 he was elected the country’s first black president, lifting the curtain on apartheid.
Edward Joseph Perkins Jr. was born June 8, 1928 in Sterlington, Louisiana. Her father was an evangelical pastor who traveled from church to church leading revivals. Her mother, Tiny Estelle (Noble) Perkins, was a schoolteacher.
His parents divorced when he was very young and he lived for a time with his maternal grandparents, who were born into slavery and had not learned to read. In their hometown of Pleasant Grove, Louisiana, school ended for black sixth grade students, so he moved with his mother and her new husband, who was also a minister, to Pine Bluff. They then moved to Portland, Oregon, where he graduated from high school.
He decided to become a diplomat after attending lectures by former diplomats at a local international relations club. After high school, he was determined to see the world and joined the military for three years. After returning to civilian life, he still yearned to see the world and wanted to become more disciplined, so he joined the Marine Corps, serving four years in Korea, Hawaii, and Japan.
When he left the Marines, he took civilian employment with the Army and Air Force Exchange Services in Taiwan, where he met Lucy Ching-mei Liu. They wanted to get married, but her parents objected to her marrying a man who was not Chinese. They fled to Taiwan and got married in 1962.
In addition to his daughter Katherine, Dr. Perkins is survived by another daughter, Sarah Perkins, and four grandchildren. His wife died in 2009.
Stationed in Taipei and Okinawa, Dr Perkins enrolled in a program at the University of Maryland that earned him a bachelor’s degree in public administration and political science in 1967.
After a stint at the Agency for International Development, he passed the rigorous foreign service exam in 1971. While working in administrative jobs at the State Department, he studied on a satellite campus of the University of Southern California to Washington and received his masters in 1972 and his doctorate in 1978, both in public administration.
He always maintained that he was not bitter, despite the hardships in the segregated South and racial obstacles along the way. In a 2007 interview with the University of Southern California, he recalled his grandmother’s words:
“You take what you have and keep walking,” he had told her. “If you stop in the middle of the road, you won’t get anywhere.”