Michigan State University

Howard Wolpe

Howard Wolpe discusses his 40-year scholarly and political career, focusing particularly on issues of Africa and racism in the United States. Wolpe did his PhD dissertation research in Nigeria in 1963-65 and joined the Political Science faculty of Western Michigan University in 1967. After serving in the Michigan House of Representatives, Wolpe served for 14 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, 10 of them as Chair of the Africa Subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Wolpe tells anecdotes about his early efforts as Subcommittee Chair to back President Carter’s decision to retain U.S. sanctions against Rhodesia and his strategizing with Representative Ronald Dellums and the Congressional Black Caucus about moving the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act through the House and in Conference Committee with the Senate. Wolpe also discussed his work as President Carter’s Special Envoy to the African Great Lakes Region (when he led the U.S. delegation to talks aimed to end civil wars in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo), his time as Director of the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and subsequent work dealing with Burundi. [Note: Howard Wolpe passed away on October 25, 2011.]

Portions of the following resume are drawn from the obituary of the Washington Post and edited by David Wiley, “Ex-congressman Howard Wolpe of Michigan dies at 71,” By Adam Bernstein, October 27, 2011 http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2011-10-27/local/35279015_1_south-africa-sanctions-release-of-political-prisoner

Former U.S. representative Howard Wolpe of Michigan, a liberal Democrat who served seven terms in Congress and was a powerful advocate for economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, died Oct. 25, 2011 at his home in Saugatuck, MI. He was 71.

Rep. Wolpe, whose mother was involved in civil rights causes, had a doctorate in political science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology where his dissertation concerned politics in a Nigerian city.  He spent his early career teaching African studies and political science at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.  He also taught at Michigan State University which published two of his works on Africa.

He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1978 representing parts of southwestern Michigan from Lansing to Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, and he made his greatest mark serving for a decade as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa. Rep. Wolpe was among a core group of congressmen who championed sanctions against South Africa because of its violent, white-minority rule.

The debate over divesting financial interests in South Africa also reached colleges and corporate boardrooms. One of the largest employers in Rep. Wolpe’s district, Kellogg’s, had operations in South Africa and objected to sanctions. The company also funded efforts to unseat him, but Rep. Wolpe managed to keep his seat in large part by staying attentive to the needs of his constituents.

Taking on the issue of apartheid paid few, if any, dividends among his constituents. He took other political risks by frustrating the Reagan White House’s policy of “constructive engagement” in Southern Africa. The White House’s approach was aimed at ending South Africa’s segregationist system without isolating the country, a vital Cold War ally of the United States.

In 1985, Rep. Wolpe criticized constructive engagement, saying that it was likely “to increase the violence” in South Africa “because the intransigent [white] elements have been led to believe they can engage in repression without any real cost or American response.”

Rep. Wolpe worked to pass a trade embargo on South Africa that would prohibit all U.S. companies from conducting business there. The Senate approved a slightly milder bill, and Rep. Wolpe was persuaded to accept it with a promise that the Senate would override a presidential veto. In the end, both chambers overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto.

The bill became the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which banned most new trade in South Africa and included the release of political prisoner Nelson Mandela as a condition for lifting the sanctions. Rep. Wolpe continued to press for further sanctions, even after Mandela was freed in 1990.

In addition to his work on South Africa, Rep. Wolpe was involved in crafting legislation to provide famine relief and development assistance to Africa, reduce U.S. military assistance to General Mobutu in Zaire (Congo), and end the U.S.-backed civil war in Angola.

In 1992, Rep. Wolpe lost his U.S. House district to reapportionment. Two years later, he ran for governor in Michigan and was soundly defeated by the Republican incumbent, John Engler.

Rep. Wolpe became President Bill Clinton’s special envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes region, and he worked to draw Washington’s attention to conflicts in Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. In the 2000s, he served as director of the Africa program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Howard Eliot Wolpe was born in Los Angeles on Nov. 2, 1939. His parents divorced, and he was raised by his mother, Zelda, a clinical psychologist and specialist in conflict resolution.

Rep. Wolpe graduated in 1960 from Reed College in Portland, Ore., and received his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1967.

While on the university faculty in Kalamazoo, he launched his political career in 1969 as a city commissioner. He later served in the Michigan legislature and spent two years as a regional representative for U.S. Sen. Donald Riegle (D-Mich.).

Rep. Wolpe’s first marriage, to Celia Jeanene “Nina” Taylor, ended in divorce. In 1992, he married Judith Artz Hollister, the ex-wife of a Lansing mayor. She died in 2006 in a swimming accident while on vacation in Guatemala. Rep. Wolpe was also caught in the undertow but was able to reach the shore.

Source: African Activist Archive