US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

In the days since nine people were killed in Charleston, much of the debate has centered around a flag. On Monday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from the state Capitol grounds, acknowledging that for many, "the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past." It was a long overdue but impressive statement.

Dylann Storm Roof, the man who killed those nine people while they gathered in their church to pray, proudly waved the Confederate flag as a symbol of his fealty to white supremacy. But he had a fondness for two other flags as well, ones that were stitched to his jacket: the flags of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and apartheid-era South Africa. Though the now-defunct flags flew over distant shores, they too once had a significant impact on American politics.

For two decades following the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the signature civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the battle over segregation and voting rights shifted to the international arena. The apartheid regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia represented a problem for U.S. policymakers: Although they were reliable anticommunist allies in the region, their governments were also explicitly white supremacist.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, the apartheid policies of American allies had little impact on U.S. foreign policy. But as civil rights activists began to win the war against Jim Crow at home, they called into question U.S. support for segregationist regimes abroad. By the late 1970s, the anti-apartheid movement had become the heir apparent to the campus activism of the 1960s. "After several years of conspicuous quiet," the New York Times reported, "social activists on the nation's college campuses have found an issue to stir the social consciences of their fellow students: South Africa."

Not all social activists, though. For some conservatives, apartheid was not a clear-cut issue. While they often — but not always — expressed uneasiness with the regimes' white supremacy, they believed the U.S. should continue to support apartheid in Rhodesia and South Africa. Their arguments mirrored those they had used to support Jim Crow in the American South. First, they argued that black Africans were not fit for self-government. In 1965 Russell Kirk wrote in National Review that the problem facing South Africa was not one of racism. "The real question is prudential: how to govern tolerably a society composed of several races, among which only a minority is civilized."

In such a society, Kirk held, the principle of "one man, one vote," would prove injurious, because it would empower an uncivilized majority. Conservatives used that same argument in the United States to oppose voting reforms. The California Republican Assembly, for instance, declared in 1964, "The principle of one man, one vote violates the very promise of a representative Republican form of government," paving the way for "mob rule."

Second, proponents of apartheid regimes argued that though segregation may be morally repugnant, the U.S. had no business intervening in the domestic affairs of other nations. It was a states' rights argument for the international stage. Frustrated with Ronald Reagan's muddled statements on apartheid in 1985, National Review asked, "Why doesn't the President just say something like this: 'We are opposed in principle to both Communism and apartheid. However, we will take action only against nations that seek to export these evils.'" In other words: As long as what happens in Rhodesia stays in Rhodesia, the U.S. has no reason to get involved.

As that criticism of Reagan suggests, conservatives in the mid-1980s were split over the issue of apartheid. Some, like Pat Buchanan and Richard Viguerie, strongly supported the apartheid regimes. Should apartheid fail, "the real rulers of South Africa would be white and Soviet," Viguerie argued. Meanwhile members of Newt Gingrich's Conservative Opportunity Society, eager to build a conservative majority, believed opposing apartheid was necessary in order to shed conservatism's racist image. For that, Buchanan awarded the group the "Turncoat of the Year Award" for "stabbing South Africa in the back." 

Split between anticommunism and anti-racism, the right was in a bind. Economic sanctions, America's main weapon against apartheid regimes, won support of all but the most hard-line conservatives, like Sens. Barry Goldwater and Jesse Helms. When Congress passed sanctions in 1986, Reagan vetoed them. His veto was overridden with the support of Republicans like Bob Dole and Mitch McConnell.

The collapse of Rhodesia in 1979 and apartheid South Africa in the early 1990s largely invalidated the pro-apartheid (or anti-anti-apartheid) arguments in the United States. They would only live on in the white supremacist fringes, where Dylann Storm Roof encountered them. But their history matters, because their appropriation by violent white supremacists like Roof reveals the corrosive ideology behind apartheid that its proponents in the 1970s and 1980s worked so hard to obscure.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report