The illustrious history of Caroline Hunter’s selfless work as a human rights activist is deeply interwoven with a moving tale of Black love—love for her community, people of African descent in the diaspora, her daughter Lisette and her late husband, photographer, activist and humanitarian Ken Williams. Hunter’s inherent sense of responsibility for improving the lives of others first led her to cross paths in the 1970s with Ken, with whom she’d wage an historical anti-apartheid boycott campaign against their employer, Polaroid, for doing business with South Africa’s oppressive government.
Growing up in the segregated South in New Orleans, Caroline’s mother instilled in her very early the concept of giving back. “You did something for other people on a regular basis voluntarily,” says Caroline. This came naturally for her throughout her life.
When her classmate at Xavier University (the historically Black Catholic University) got pregnant and the school threatened to keep her from graduating, Caroline organized members of her senior class in a walkout to protest the school’s conservative ruling. “She needed that diploma more than any of us did,” says Caroline. The chemistry major’s protest was successful, the school relented, and the mom-to-be received her diploma. “This was something I had to do. I didn’t see organizing this protest as anything risqué.
“Ken and I first met when we were paired by Polaroid to go around Boston public schools to talk to students about the importance of education,” Caroline recalls. She worked as a chemist at the Cambridge-based company while her colleague Ken was a staff photographer. “We were the only volunteers who questioned the state of these public schools.”
How come the clocks weren’t working? Why was the teacher reading a newspaper instead of teaching? And how come students were wearing their coats in a cold classroom? Those were some of the weighty questions Ken and Caroline posed. “We were told not to worry about that and just to motivate the kids, but motivation is not a vacuum. How can it work in this environment? We both knew something was very wrong.” Caroline and Ken’s uneasiness with the deplorable school conditions would form a bond between them.
“Ken was a charming gentleman and a deep thinker who cared about the world and wasn’t just concerned about his place in it,” Caroline recollects. She was 23 and Ken was 17 years her senior with a son and daughter when they started dating. “My friends were worried about the age difference, but he didn’t look his age, and more importantly, it was his character and his compassion for others that really connected us.”
In 1970, Ken and Caroline would put their jobs on the line to protest against apartheid after stumbling upon a Polaroid mockup of a South African photo identification card referred to by Nelson Mandela as “the hated document.” The passbook was used to supervise and control Blacks in the country during the apartheid regime. “We were very shocked at what we saw,” Caroline says. “This was supposedly a liberal company, and here was proof that Polaroid supported apartheid by producing these passbooks.”
They instantly launched a grassroots campaign to spread the word and demand the company cease their ties to South Africa and denounce apartheid. This was many years before the international community took a strong stand against the South African government’s oppressive decades-long rule. “We didn’t know much about South Africa at the time, but we knew that it was a bad place for Black people. We didn’t have some big strategy. We just knew it was wrong, and we thought maybe we can do something about this.”
They typed up leaflets, distributed them around the office, and pinned them on company bulletin boards and restroom stalls. They also organized demonstrations outside the company’s offices. Ken and Caroline were the first Americans to take a stand against their employers’ involvement in apartheid. This drew an avalanche of media coverage, and they even testified at the United Nation’s Special Committee on Apartheid in 1977.
Consequently, their actions got them fired from Polaroid shortly after the campaign took off. But the fight lasted a long seven years before the corporation would finally pull out of South Africa. “It became bigger than we could have ever imagined, and we didn’t back down or run when we found out just how big it was,” says Caroline.
While the pressure of leading an international boycott and loss of income would put a strain on most couples, Caroline says their fight for justice only strengthened their relationship. “It was just another level in which we connected, and it was a goal we worked towards,” she remembers. “The movement was a security blanket, ’cause no one could divide that connection. We found each other not as friends or love interests, but through social consciousness. That’s where our love and attraction grew from.”