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Michigan congressman led fight for sanctions against South Africa

Howard Eliot Wolpe ’60

A picture of Howard Wolpe

Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Howard Eliot Wolpe ’60, October 25, 2011, in Saugatuck, Michigan.

Congressman, diplomat, professor, and author of a landmark piece of legislation that helped push South Africa to abandon apartheid, Howard combined a passion for justice and equality with a grasp of hardnosed politics. “I used to insist that my greatest political strength was my fallibility,” Howard said in 2008. “I have always argued that when people can call you by your first name, that is a way of narrowing distance and improving communications. To hold onto power by putting yourself above the people is ultimately counterproductive.”

Howard’s mother was a clinical psychologist; his father, a pediatrician. He was 16 when he took the train from Los Angeles to Reed, drawn to the college for its brainy reputation. His freshman roommate was the future economist Lester Lave ’60. Howard treasured the sense of autonomy, the irreverence, and the testing of assumptions he found at Reed. “I think that my life and my career has always continued those characteristics that I loved so greatly, so deeply when I was here at Reed.” Howard served on the student senate, was a resident adviser, and fulfilled his P.E. credits through folk dancing and grueling basketball drills. He earned a BA in political science, studying with professors Maure Goldschmidt [political science 1935–81], Marvin Levich [philosophy 1953–94], and John Pock [sociology 1955–98]. “The work I did in sociology and political science helped inform my approach to politics and my understanding of politics.”

Howard pursued political science at MIT, where a course on African studies sparked his interest in African nationalism; he spent two years in Nigeria working on his dissertation. In 1967, he moved to Kalamazoo to teach political science at Western Michigan University. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated a few months later. Howard left the classroom and moved into the streets, he said, where his interest in racial and ethnic conflict acquired a more practical relevance. King’s assassination outraged the nation; Howard became one of the founders of Action Now, an organization focused on race and poverty in Kalamazoo, which brought him unexpected public visibility as an activist and agitator. It also led to a position as Kalamazoo city commissioner. Thus he found himself in the unusual situation of playing a dual role, both as an academic teaching the politics of race and as a local official struggling with racial conflicts.

In 1972, he was elected as a Democrat to the Michigan House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the House Committee on Corrections and discovered the racism embedded in the Michigan correctional system. He then served as a staff member for U.S. Senator Donald Riegle, and, in 1978, was elected to the U.S. Congress, representing Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Lansing. He served seven terms in Congress, chairing the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on Africa.

Howard’s most significant accomplishment was the Comprehensive Anti-apartheid Act of 1986, which imposed sanctions against American companies doing business in South Africa—a turning point for the apartheid regime, or so it seemed until President Reagan vetoed the bill. Howard then led the effort to overturn Reagan’s veto. “The white minority regime will abandon apartheid, and will agree to enter into negotiations with the credible black leadership of the majority of the population, only at that point when it concludes that it has more to lose than to gain by attempting to hold on to apartheid,” he declared on the floor of the House. Congress ultimately overturned the veto by a thumping majority (313–83 in the House, 78–21 in the Senate). “That single legislative success made all the years I spent in Congress worth the effort,” he said.

The act stipulated that South Africa would have to release Nelson Mandela from prison before the sanctions could be lifted. When Mandela was finally released in 1990, one of the first things he did was to call Howard to thank him for his work.

During his congressional career, Howard also authored the African Famine Recovery and Development Act, the Pollution Prevention Act, the Industrial Process Efficiency Act, and the Taxpayer Right to Know Act. Leaving Congress in 1992, he made an unsuccessful bid for governor of Michigan, then became a research fellow at the Brookings Institution. President Bill Clinton appointed him as special envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes region. In this capacity, Howard supported peace talks that helped bring an end to longstanding civil wars in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Most conflict in Africa has nothing to do with tradition,” he said. “The groups that are in conflict today are groups that have emerged in the course of urbanization and economic and social change.” Howard later served as a public policy scholar and director of the African Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he directed postconflict leadership training programs in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Liberia.

Tragedy struck in 2006, when he and his second wife, Judy, were caught in an undertow while swimming together on vacation in Guatemala. Howard made it to shore; Judy drowned.

In 2009, President Obama appointed him special adviser for Africa’s Great Lakes region. Howard retired from the State Department a year later and moved to Saugatuck, Michigan, where he taught at WMU. Howard was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and served on the boards of directors of the National Endowment for Democracy, Africare, and Pathfinders International, and on the advisory board of Coexistence International. He taught at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, and wrote extensively on Africa, American foreign policy, and the management of ethnic and racial conflict. Howard received the African American Institute’s Star Crystal Award for Excellence and the Sierra Club’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Last year, he contributed an essay for Thinking Reed, a collection of essays published in honor of the college’s centennial. “My four years at Reed College shaped not only my diplomatic and political orientation,” he wrote, “but also provided some very practical insights into the nitty-gritty of political life—the determinants of voting behavior, techniques for direct personal voter contact in elections, and the importance of personal relationships in political life and its institutions.”

Survivors include his third wife, Julie Fletcher, and his son, Michael.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2012

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