When Edward J. Perkins was a student at a separate school in Pine Bluff, Ark. Was his history teacher teaching the class about the brutal suppression of the race in South Africa. Students were told it was worse than what they saw as blacks in the American South.
The teacher urged her students to donate as little money as possible to the African National Congress to support its fight against the rule of the white minority.
Dr. Perkins often recalled this lesson when he became the first black US ambassador to South Africa to serve during the last bitter decade of the system known as apartheid.
“We were black teenagers in the middle of Arkansas, young people who discriminated against ourselves, black boys and girls who could hardly find South Africa on a map,” he recalled in a memoir. Ambassador: Warriors for Peace, ”written with Connie Cronley and published in 2006.
“But,” he added, “we have put our pennies and nickels into this noble fight.”
Ambassador Perkins died on November 7th in a Washington hospital. He was 92 years old. His daughter, Katherine Perkins, said the cause was complications from a stroke.
Dr. Perkins, whose grandparents had been born into slavery, climbed the upper reaches of the State Department.
In addition to his ambassadorial posts, which included Liberia and Australia, he became Director General of the External Action Service and helped recruit young officers from outside the Ivy League. He became US Ambassador to the United Nations and served as US Representative on the United Nations Security Council in 1992.
After retiring from the Foreign Service in 1996, he spent a dozen years at the University of Oklahoma, where he directed the International Programs Center and taught geopolitics.
“We have just lost a diplomatic giant,” wrote Susan Rice, who served as US ambassador to the United Nations in the Obama administration, after Dr. Perkins’ death on Twitter. “Pioneer among African Americans, advocate of a diverse foreign service.”
Ambassador Perkins not only recruited people of color, women and people from places like Appalachia, but also oversaw the recruitment of Avraham Rabby, the first blind person in the diplomatic corps. (Mr. Rabby died in May at the age of 77.)
His most difficult assignment was South Africa, where he was named ambassador by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
The United States, like much of the world, has been embroiled in a heated debate over how to try to end apartheid. Congress had overridden a Reagan veto and imposed severe economic sanctions.
Reagan had tried to hold off the vote by promising to impose sanctions himself – and Dr. Perkins had appointed South Africa’s first black ambassador.
Some black leaders were concerned that Reagan was using a black ambassador as a symbolic gesture for not wanting to confront South Africa on the content, and urged Dr. Perkins to decline the appointment. Among them was Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader, who told reporters that Dr. Perkins as the mediator between Reagan and President P.W. Botha, from South Africa, would put him “in the same humiliating attitude of asking a Jewish person to be an ambassador between Hitler and a reactionary government”.
But Dr. Perkins’ wife reminded him that as a member of the Foreign Service, he had sworn to go where he was needed. He accepted the posting.
“Apartheid in South Africa burned around me,” he wrote in his memoir.
When he presented his testimony to President Botha, the two immediately performed a will test.
“President Botha was one step above me,” wrote Dr. Perkins, an imposing 6-foot-3 figure.
“I suspect the ceremony was choreographed to make him tower over me and make me look up at him,” he added, “but he’s a short man and we were right in the eyes. I was determined not to take my eyes off until he did. “
When the ambassador handed over his ID, Mr. Botha had to look down, and at that point he lost the rigid competition.
Their relationship remained icy 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 both whites and blacks. Mr. Botha viewed this as a nuisance.
“He put his finger in my face,” recalled Dr. Perkins at a meeting where he said, “like sticking his finger in Reagan’s face.” Mr. Botha “kept ranting,” said Dr. Perkins before storming out of the room. Despite Mr. Botha’s objections, the ambassador met with black and white South Africans and even held integrated receptions.
He stayed in South Africa until 1989. At this point, cracks appeared in the country’s repressive regime. Nelson Mandela was released from prison the next year and elected the nation’s first black president in 1994, lifting the curtain on apartheid.
Edward Joseph Perkins Jr. was born on June 8, 1928 in Sterlington, La. His father was a Protestant pastor who traveled from church to church to lead revivals. His mother, Tiny Estelle (Noble) Perkins, was a teacher.
His parents divorced when he was a toddler, and he lived for a while with his maternal grandparents, who had been born into slavery and had not learned to read. In their town, Pleasant Grove, La., Black school finished sixth grade, so he moved to Pine Bluff with his mother and her new ministerial husband. They later moved to Portland, Oregon, where he finished high school.
He decided to become a diplomat after attending lectures given by former diplomats at a local international relations club. After high school, determined to see the world, he joined the army for three years. After returning to civilian life, he still longed to see the world and was eager to become more disciplined. As a result, he joined the Marine Corps and served four years in Korea, Hawaii, and Japan.
Upon leaving the Marines, he took a civilian job with the Army and Air Forces 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 married in 1962.
In addition to his daughter Katherine, Dr. Perkins has another daughter, Sarah Perkins, and four grandchildren. His wife died in 2009.
During his stationing in Taipei and Okinawa, Dr. Perkins for a program at the University of Maryland that enabled him to earn a bachelor’s degree in public administration and political science in 1967.
After a stint at the Agency for International Development, he passed the stringent foreign service examination in 1971. While serving as an administrative clerk at the State Department, he studied on a satellite campus at the University of Southern California, Washington, and received his Masters in 1972 and 1978 PhD in Public Administration.
He always claimed that he was not bitter despite having faced difficulties in the south and racist obstacles along the way. In a 2007 interview With the University of Southern California, he remembered his grandmother’s words:
“You take what you have and go on,” he said, she had told him. “If you stop in the middle of the street, you won’t be going anywhere.”