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Jeanette Carlson (1929–2020), anti-apartheid activist

by Linnea Crowther

Jeanette Carlson was an anti-apartheid activist who was a leader of the South African civil rights organization the Black Sash.

Fighting for equal rights

A native of South Africa, Carlson first became involved in anti-apartheid activism as a young teacher, assigned to teach a classroom of Black students. As she became aware of the injustices her students faced, she began fighting for the rights of all Black people in South Africa. Carlson became the leader of the Johannesburg chapter of the Black Sash, a group of white women who protested apartheid and offered education and pro bono legal work. Carlson’s husband, Joel, joined her in the fight as a civil rights lawyer who represented Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013). In 1970, Carlson’s home was firebombed on the heels of death threats the family received from supporters of apartheid. The following year, Carlson’s husband fled the country after learning that he would be arrested for opposing the government. In the wake of his flight, Carlson and their children were deported. The family settled in the U.S., where Carlson became active in organizations including Planned Parenthood and Reach Out America.

Carlson on leaving South Africa

“I put that part of my life behind me, happily. It was so disgusting to live in that kind of environment where people were treated so badly. I had no intention of revisiting that.” —from a 2014 essay by Calson’s daughter, Meredith Carson Daly


Full obituary: The Washington Post

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