Yes You Can: Challenging Young People to Fight Apartheid and Take on the World
Southern African Solidarity: Prexy and the World
by Elizabeth Schmidt
Baltimore, Maryland, United States
October 2, 2019
Remarks at the Symposium Honoring the Social Justice Career of Prexy Nesbitt, University of Illinois at Chicago. Schmidt says I met Prexy in the fall of 1978; I had just turned 23 and was one year out of college, working for an NGO in Washington, DC on a project that focused on human rights and US foreign policy; my assignment was to look at human rights and US policy in South Africa; I made a trip to the American Committee on Africa in New York to do some research; after sitting in the conference room for a couple days pouring over ACOA reports, I was approached by a striking looking man who said, “Sister! I see you so hard at work there--what are you doing?” Schmidt says he introduced himself as Prexy Nesbitt, encouraged me, and urged me to send him my report when I was finished. Schmidt says a few months later, Prexy called me—from Washington D.C.; he had just taken a job as the head of the Africa Project at the Institute for Policy Studies; one thing led to another and in March 1979, I began working with Prexy at IPS; my first day on the job, Prexy gave me an assignment—unmask the Sullivan Principles. Schmidt says since Prexy told me they had to be unmasked, there was obviously something wrong with them. Schmidt says three weeks later, Prexy was distributing my report to the to the International Freedom Mobilization SUMMIT CONFERENCE OF BLACK RELIGIOUS LEADERS ON APARTHEID in New York City, where some 200 civil rights leaders were convening to formulate a position on US policy vis-à-vis apartheid South Africa; the Reverend Leon Sullivan, civil rights leader, author of the employment code, and member of the General Motors board of directors, was to be the keynote speaker; Prexy knew that, without an alternative, the religious leaders, longtime colleagues in the civil rights movement, would endorse Sullivan's employment code; Prexy, who had been invited to run one of the conference workshops, stood outside the auditorium door, distributing my critique with the oblique comment, "This is the Sullivan information." Schmidt says The Reverend Wyatt T. Walker stood up, waving the report, and challenged Sullivan as he entered the hall, "Leon! What do you have to say to THIS?" Schmidt says when Prexy suggested that I update and expand my analysis, I leaped at the opportunity; the result was my first book, Decoding Corporate Camouflage: U.S. Business Support for Apartheid (1980), which was banned in South Africa. Schmidt says having riled the bosses once again, Prexy moved on to the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism, where he continued the struggle. Schmidt says I want to conclude by saying this: Prexy changed my life; never have I had such a mentor, such a teacher, who believed in me and helped me believe in myself as he did; I KNOW that he has inspired hundreds of young people in the same way.
Used by permission of Elizabeth Schmidt.