By Stacy D. Williams
The foreign affairs community lost one of the most revered Foreign Service figures in a generation, Nov. 7, 2020. Ambassador Edward J. Perkins’ extraordinary 92-year journey is well documented in general terms but also more pointedly through his autobiography, “Mr. Ambassador: Warrior for Peace.” Many who knew him across generations stated that he was the “model ambassador” as his intellect, kindness, welcoming presence, global perspectives, and strong personal beliefs made an indelible impression on all who came to know him. During assignments as ambassador to Liberia, South Africa, the United Nations (U.N.), Australia, and as director general of the Foreign Service, his creativity, dedication, and ingenuity in solving complex issues were on full display. Perhaps one of his most important achievements was the role he played in dismantling apartheid in South Africa. In 2020, Perkins was awarded the American Foreign Service Association’s prestigious Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy Award because of his strong record of achievement and unwavering commitment to public service.
While Perkins’ varied and remarkable career is well documented, his personal motivations and thinking became a highlight for the individual’s closest to him. However, he also felt a responsibility to share his views with those around him, hoping to educate, influence, and inspire.
“I believe that a nation’s foreign policy is not the purview of an exclusive few, but rather the responsibility of all citizens,” Perkins wrote in his autobiography.
Perkins stressed the importance of self-actualization or the need to be all that one can be. These inspiring beliefs are indeed case studies that can be examined through his accomplished career in the Department, as well as his inspiring post-government life.
While serving as the first African American director general of the Foreign Service, Perkins discussed with then-Deputy Secretary Lawrence Eagleburger the importance of reshaping the Department so that more minorities and women could be brought into the workforce. The inclusion of underrepresented groups would position the Department to more accurately represent America to the world. Working through the director general’s newly created Policy Coordination Office with the late Reverend Dr. John Gravely—who served as a senior program analyst—Maryanne Thomas, and Al Carroll—who both served as program analysts—and many others, Perkins designed and implemented the Foreign Affairs Fellows program, today known as the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship program. The Pickering Fellowship served as the model for the subsequent establishment of the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellowship program and the Donald Payne Fellowship at USAID. More than 960 fellows have joined the Foreign Service since the inception of the Pickering Fellows program in 1992 and the Rangel Fellowship program in 2002, with 769 currently on active service. These programs have helped bring diversity to the Department workforce as prescribed in the Foreign Service Act of 1980.
Perkins was a dedicated professional who remained active, engaged, and present in the lives of those individuals for whom he blazed a trail. Perkins’ hosting of the annual Pickering, Rangel, and Payne receptions was both inspiring and rewarding. Through these receptions, the Thursday Luncheon Group (TLG) and the Association of Black American Ambassadors (ABAA) introduced such luminaries as the deputy secretary, director general, the under secretary for political affairs, and the under secretary for management to members of each incoming class of enthusiastic fellows before they entered their A-100 classes. Last year, the Department announced that in 2021 it would increase the size of the Pickering and Rangel Fellowships from 60 to 90 fellows per year; yet another accomplishment and a reminder of Perkins’ profound legacy.
Following his retirement from the Department in 1996, Perkins served as the William J. Crowe chair professor and executive director of the International Programs Center at the University of Oklahoma. He assumed this role at the invitation of his friend and colleague former-Senator and University of Oklahoma President David L. Boren. After following Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment during apartheid in South Africa closely, Boren established the Boren Scholarships and Fellowship programs. During his frequent visits to South Africa, he and Perkins became friends. At the University of Oklahoma, Perkins taught graduate courses and premiered the Ambassador Terence A. Todman Book scholarship for deserving students interested in international affairs. He also identified other strategies to inspire students to pursue careers in international affairs.
Upon moving to Washington from Oklahoma, Perkins remained actively engaged in international affairs serving as president of the ABAA, which provides a strong sense of community among the growing number of former and active African-American ambassadors.
In 1949, Edward Dudley became the first African-American ambassador with his assignment to Liberia. Since Dudley, approximately 205 African Americans have been confirmed to fill ambassadorial assignments worldwide, with some African Americans serving in multiple chief of mission roles during their respective careers.
Perkins made it a policy for ABAA to communicate directly with each newly confirmed African-American ambassador. He provided them with a copy of his autobiography and a letter of congratulations and encouragement to join the ABAA. Under his leadership, the ABAA hosted annual spring luncheon events at the exclusive Cosmos Club, featuring high profile speakers including former president of the Urban League and author Vernon Jordan, Joe Davidson of the Washington Post, Georgetown University President John DeGioia, and former American Foreign Service Association President Barbara Stephenson. In 2013, during TLG’s 40th anniversary commemoration event, Perkins was recognized along with other TLG pioneers and delivered closing remarks. During the commemoration event, TLG’s president announced Perkins’ agreement to launch a joint initiative between TLG and ABAA sponsoring a minority internship each summer thereafter.
Those who worked closely with Perkins are familiar with his constant reminders that one always has something special to contribute to society at every age. Just days before his passing, he participated in an ABAA-led discussion with several affinity groups and other international organizations on courses of action to address structural barriers to diversity and inclusion that remain within the Department. The group produced several forward-leaning recommendations focusing on recruitment, assignments, training, mentoring, promotions, and retention.
Perkins frequently highlighted a successful activity or event by calling it a “seminal moment.” Through his extraordinary legacy and life’s works and deeds, he gave the foreign affairs community a “seminal era” worth modeling today and well into the future. In every photo taken of Perkins, he held his head high with pride and confidence and exuded a strong commitment to excellence in international affairs. The next generation would be wise to take note and do the same.
To honor Perkins, the Department announced the newly named Edward J. Perkins Memorial Award(s) for Leadership in Diversity and Inclusion, March 5. This annual award will recognize employees’ outstanding accomplishments in furthering the Department’s diversity and inclusion goals—including equal employment opportunity—through exceptionally effective leadership, skill, imagination, and innovation in extending and promoting diversity and inclusion for those who work at the Department.
Stacy D. Williams is deputy director in the Bureau of Western Affairs (WHA) Office of Haitian Affairs and chair of WHA’s Diversity Council.