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Tribute to Thomas Karis 
2017-08-23

Written by Aleck Karis and forwarded to all friends of Thomas Karis by Gail Gerhart.

 

Thomas G. Karis, a former foreign service officer who was a critic of U. S. policy on South Africa and who became a leading historian of the South African liberation movement, died of natural causes on August 18 at the age of 97. Professor Karis was the chief author and editor of a four-volume book series, From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa 1882-1964, published in the 1970s. A reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement of London called the series “a feat of such distinction that it is hard to call to mind a single parallel or precedent.” After obtaining a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Karis later was a co-author, with Gail Gerhart of Columbia University and others, of an updated second edition of the series that appeared in six volumes between 2010 and 2017 from Jacana Media in Johannesburg.

Karis was born November 21, 1919, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His parents were Greek immigrants who changed their surname from Katritses to Karis at the end of World War II.  His father ran a restaurant but went bankrupt in the early 1930s.  Karis was valedictorian of his high school class and graduated from the University of Minnesota with honors in three years.  At Columbia University he won the Toppan Prize in Constitutional Law in 1942.

He served in the U. S. Army during 1942-46.  As a first lieutenant and mortar platoon leader in the 16th armored division, he participated in the liberation of Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. He concluded his service as a captain in Information and Education, European Theater Headquarters.

On returning to Columbia, Karis briefly attended the Law School while teaching at the City College of New York and also at Columbia College. He received a doctorate in political science in 1951. His special academic interest was in judicial-legislative relations. In his dissertation, reviewing legislation on child labor and fair labor standards from 1906 to 1938, he probed the question of whether the courts were deterring Congress.

His life-long interest in South Africa began in 1951 when he joined the British Commonwealth Research Branch of the State Department. He made a research trip to South Africa in 1955 and became a Foreign Service Officer on his return. During 1957-59, he served in the American Embassy in Pretoria, reporting on black politics, labor, and the long-running Treason Trial of 1956-61.

Lacking ambition to rise in the State Department, he resigned and became the Great Lakes Regional Director of the Foreign Policy Association. After publishing an article on the Treason Trial in Political Science Quarterly, he began teaching political theory and constitutional law at City College, attracted by its reputation as the proletarian Harvard. 

He became chairman of his department and, later, executive officer of the Political Science doctoral program in the City University Graduate School. He taught a graduate course on southern Africa at Columbia in 1967, and in 1968-69 was Visiting Professor of Political Science at the University of Zambia. While he was in Zambia, the Pretoria government refused to issue him and his family visas for South Africa. In 1976, an article co-authored with William Cotter, president of the African-American Institute, advocated a policy of visa retaliation. During the next year, he was a fellow in Yale University’s Southern Africa Research Program. Issued a visa in 1979, he returned to South Africa.

During 1985-88, he and Gerhart, with support from several foundation grants, brought together white South African visitors to New York and African National Congress representatives and other exiles to hold informal discussions.

Karis was co-author of South Africa’s Transkei: The Politics of Domestic Colonialism, published by Northwestern University Press. He published widely, criticizing the U. S. policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa in the Reagan years and arguing for economic sanctions. He testified before committees of the House and Senate, and was the research secretary for a South African study group at the Council on Foreign Relations, publishing two articles in Foreign Affairs  in the 1980s, “Revolution in the Making: Black Politics in South Africa” and “South African Liberation: The Communist Factor.”

After retiring in 1985, Karis received honorary doctorates from two South African universities and became a member of the African advisory committee of Human Rights Watch. In 2014 he traveled to South Africa for the last time, where he was among those to receive national honors bestowed annually by the South African president. 

Karis’s wife Mary, (whose father, Demetrios Vichenchos, was a Greek Orthodox priest) died in 2012. They are survived by three sons –- Demetrios of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Aleck of La Jolla, California, and James of New Orleans, Louisiana –– and four grandchildren.