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May 26, 1948 to May 9, 1994

Martin Luther King believed South Africa was home to “the world’s worst racism” and drew parallels between struggles against apartheid in South Africa and struggles against “local and state governments committed to ‘white supremacy’” in the southern United States (Papers 5:401). In a statement delivered at the 1962 American Negro Leadership Conference King declared: “Colonialism and segregation are nearly synonymous … because their common end is economic exploitation, political domination, and the debasing of human personality” (Press release, 28 November 1962).

Apartheid (meaning “apartness” in Afrikaans) was the legal system for racial separation in South Africa from 1948 until 1994. The Popular Registration Act of 1950 classified all South Africans into three categories: bantu (blacks), coloureds (those of mixed race), and white. Later, a fourth category, “Asians,” was added. Throughout the 1950s regulations created separate residency areas, job categories, public facilities, transportation, education, and health systems, with social contact between the races strictly prohibited.

The nonviolent resistance of anti-apartheid demonstrators was often met with government brutality, including the massacre of 72 demonstrators in Sharpeville in 1960. King called the massacre “a tragic and shameful expression of man’s inhumanity to man” and argued that it “should also serve as a warning signal to the United States where peaceful demonstrations are also being conducted by student groups. As long as segregation continues to exist; as long as Gestapo-like tactics are used by officials of southern communities; and as long as there are governors and United States senators [who] arrogantly defy the law of the land, the United States is faced with a potential reign of terror more barbaric than anything we see in South Africa” (Papers 5:399–400).

Shortly after the Sharpeville massacre, the African National Congress (ANC) abandoned its adherence to nonviolence and created an armed wing, conducting acts of sabotage against the apartheid regime. Despite his commitment to nonviolence, King recognized that “in South Africa even the mildest form of nonviolent resistance [was met] with years of imprisonment” or worse (King, 7 December 1964). He believed that the only nonviolent solution to apartheid was an international economic and political boycott of South Africa, and called on governments to demonstrate the “international potential of nonviolence” through economic sanctions (King, “Let My People Go,” December 1965).

Although the struggle against apartheid lasted for more than four decades, the United States and Great Britain did approve economic sanctions against South Africa in 1985. The dismantling of apartheid began in the early 1990s, when South African President F. W. de Klerk legalized formerly banned political parties and released political prisoners. In 1994 a new constitution was written, and ANC leader Nelson Mandela became president in the country’s first fair and open elections.


King, “Let My People Go,” Africa Today (December 1965): 9–11.

King, “On South African Independence,” 7 December 1964, ACOA-ARC.

King to Claude Barnett, 24 March 1960, in Papers 5:399–400.

King to Dwight D. Eisenhower, 26 March 1960, in Papers 5:400–402.

Press release, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement at American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa, 28 November 1962, SCLCR-GAMK.