As Black History Month is launched, we reflect on unsung heroines like Caroline Hunter, an employee at Polaroid in Cambridge MA.
In 1970, she co-founded the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement (PRWM), a little-known group that launched the first anti-apartheid boycott of a U.S. corporation. A bench chemist, she worked on the gel that rolled onto Polaroid film in the instant camera. She accidentally discovered that Polaroid equipment was being used to create ID cards and passbooks for the South African Regimes Apartheid system. These passbooks came to symbolize the institutionalized racism of apartheid’s oppression: during an anti-passbook demonstration in 1960, sixty-nine people were killed in the “Sharpeville Massacre”.
Caroline Hunter grew up in segregated New Orleans during the height of the civil rights era. She studied chemistry at Xavier University and was recruited by Polaroid right out of college in 1968. She learned about South Africa from reading Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s 1948 novel about injustices in that society, in high school. After learning more about apartheid and the passbook laws she convinced Ken Williams, a Polaroid photographer, to push the company to cut ties with South Africa. PRWM was formed.
Early fliers posted around the corporate campus read “Polaroid imprisons black people in sixty seconds” and explained how the company provided photo ID systems to the South African government. The PRWM eventually presented Polaroid with three demands: that the company stop all operations in South Africa, publicly denounce apartheid, and donate all past profits from South African sales to African liberation movements. Polaroid first denied that it had dealings with South Africa and when this was proven false, refused to meet the demands.
Polaroid prided itself on its progressive record. It was known for focusing on diversity in its hiring practices, especially with African Americans and women, and for its internal upward mobility. Polaroid eventually sent a fact-finding mission to South Africa, which returned recommendations that led to “An Experiment in South Africa,” where the company would continue to do business there and push for changes, arguing that it did more good within the country than from outside. Their local agent was made to institute wage increases and promotions for black workers. Polaroid also backed educational initiatives and job-training schemes for black South Africans. This improved employee salaries, but largely ignored the legal nature of apartheid.
In the meantime, according to Hunter, Polaroid increased the pressure on her and Williams. They were surveilled, and some of their coworkers felt uncomfortable being seen with them. They were warned that their activism could imperil their jobs. At a large rally on October 27, 1970, the PRWM and their new partners called for an international boycott of Polaroid products until their demands were met. It was the first call to boycott an American company for its dealings in South Africa. The PRWN and its allies also stepped up their pressure campaign on Polaroid and Hunter was fired “detrimental to the best interests of the Company.” (Williams had already resigned in protest.) The two continued their campaign from outside the company. Soon the Polaroid boycott movement spread to new arenas, and others took up the cause. “What started as a grassroots effort,” Hunter said, “led to legislative activity, led to stock and corporate challenges, led to asking cities and pension funds to divest.”
Polaroid kept up its public relations campaign. It made several large donations to local African-American advocacy organizations, as well as those in South Africa that supported black education. After a year, Polaroid declared its experiment was working and vowed to continue its “engagement” with South Africa. But in 1977, a reporter at the Boston Globe discovered that Polaroid’s South African distributor was still secretly funneling Polaroid products to the apartheid regime. They were making dummy sales through a Johannesburg pharmacy, repackaging the equipment and film into unmarked cartons, and selling them to the government. The resounding outcry and embarrassment forced Polaroid to finally admit that their experiment had failed. The company ceased all sales in South Africa in 1977, and the PRWM declared victory.
Despite its failure, the Polaroid experiment served as the blueprint for corporate engagement with the South African government. In 1977, Leon Sullivan, a Baptist minister, civil rights leader, and board member at General Motors, formulated a set of principles for U.S. corporations operating in South Africa called the Sullivan Principles. Sullivan got hundreds of companies to sign on, but eventually concluded that the approach hadn’t worked. He called for a total boycott of South Africa in 1987.
It would be several more years before other American corporations followed Polaroid’s path and joined the boycott. In parallel, universities divested from companies doing business in South Africa, and athletes and musicians boycotted the country. Finally, in 1986, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act over President Reagan’s veto, imposing sanctions on the South African economy. Pressure from the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement helped topple the apartheid regime, which fell in the early 1990s.
The PRWM was never more than a handful of employees, but they leveraged their position within the company and their ability to forge alliances into an effective pressure campaign. They used Polaroid’s carefully sculpted image as a progressive and innovative technology company to their advantage. They also modeled a form of workplace organizing that sought democratic control over their firm’s conduct and operations. In a 2010 documentary on the anti-apartheid movement, Hunter makes this point in simple but explicit terms: “As workers we had a right to say what happened to our labor.”
Hunter was invited to give the keynote at the Dr. Effie Jones Memorial Luncheon at the AASA National Conference on Education, and received the Dr. Effie Jones Humanitarian Award from the AASA – The School Superintendents Association on February 14, 2014. She also received the 2012 Rosa Parks Memorial Award from the National Education Association for leading the effort that led to sanctions against apartheid in South Africa. The South African Partners presented the Amandla Award to Hunter in 2012, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association presented her the Louise Gaskins Lifetime Civil Rights Award in 2011. Nelson Mandela thanked her in person when in the US.