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Professor of the Practice Emeritus James Joseph

James A. Joseph, who served as the ambassador to South Africa appointed by President Bill Clinton, passed away on Feb. 17. Joseph was professor of the practice emeritus in the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy. He was 88.

Dean Judith Kelley of the Sanford School of Public Policy recognized Joseph for his many contributions in the world, which he brought to the classroom.

“Ambassador Joseph lived an inspired and distinguished life of service. Our students were extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from him,” Kelley said.

Joseph served in senior executive or advisory positions for four U.S. presidents, including appointments by President Jimmy Carter as undersecretary of the Interior from 1977 to 1981 and President William Clinton as U.S. ambassador to South Africa from 1996 to 2000.

Joseph joined Sanford in 2000. Joseph was leader in residence for the Hart Leadership Program and founder of the United States-Southern Africa Center for Leadership and Public Values at Duke and the University of Cape Town. He became Sanford professor of the practice emeritus in 2011.

“Jim Joseph embodied so much of what Duke and Sanford are all about,” reflected Professor Bruce Jentleson, who served as Sanford Institute Director and played a role in bringing Joseph to Duke. “His values, his work, his deep belief in what he called ‘the beloved community’ made him such a valued colleague, leader and friend.”

In the Hart Leadership Program, Joseph taught courses including PPS 264S “Leadership and Public Values." Andrew Nurkin, director of HLP, said: "Through his example and his teaching with the Hart Leadership Program, Ambassador Joseph showed us what it means to lead with public purpose and moral courage."

A native of Opelousas, La., Joseph graduated in 1956 from Southern University and A&M College with a bachelor’s degree in political science and earned a divinity degree from Yale University. An ordained minister, he previously taught at Yale Divinity School and the Claremont Colleges where he was also University Chaplain.

He was the author of four books, The Charitable Impulse, Remaking America, Leadership as a Way of Being and Saved for a Purpose: A Journey from Private Virtues to Public Values.

Saved for a Purpose

James Joseph Saved for a Purpose Book Jacket

In his book Saved for a Purpose published by Duke University Press, Joseph recounted the moral and ethical considerations of a life lived at the vanguard of some of the most important human and civil rights movements of the 20th century. The book was a reflection on the characteristics of transformational leadership, in addition to reflections on his own life experiences.

As a faculty member of Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1963, Joseph started the local civil rights movement as leader of the Tuscaloosa Citizens Action Committee. He led a march of students and local church members to city hall to protest segregation. The march was broken up by Ku Klux Klan members with baseball bats and state troopers with cattle prods. He was beaten and became a target for the KKK.

When he held the position as undersecretary in the Department of the Interior in the Carter administration, Joseph survived a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean. Joseph was flying to meet with Micronesians who wanted to relocate to their native home at Bikini Atoll, which had been a nuclear testing site. Even though he could not swim, Joseph came through the crash with only minor injuries and the conviction that he “had been saved for a purpose.”

That sense of purpose informed his tenure as head of the Council of Foundations, where he helped develop the philanthropic sectors in countries such as the Soviet Union, Costa Rica and South Africa.

South Africa

It came to full expression with his work in South Africa. Joseph returned to the country in 1996 as the U.S. ambassador during the presidency of Nelson Mandela. The country was undergoing the transformation from the oppression of apartheid to the birth of a new democracy.

“What was really unique about South Africa was the way in which the country was tackling some of the most profound moral and ethical questions facing the world then and now: questions about truth, forgiveness, justice and community,” he wrote in his book.

Joseph earned many honors throughout his career, including 19 honorary degrees from various higher education institutions. In 1999, the Republic of South Africa awarded him the Order of Good Hope, the highest honor bestowed on a citizen of another country. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana in 2005, Joseph was appointed by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco to chair the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation. In 2008, he was inducted into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame. In 2010, he was honored by the Peace Corps for his lifelong contributions to voluntarism and civil society. He served as the founding chair of the Commission on National and Community Service that established AmeriCorps.

Joseph is survived by his wife, Emmy award-winning journalist Mary Braxton Joseph, a son and daughter, and grandchildren. A memorial service is being planned in Washington, D.C.

Featured Video

James Joseph: Lessons From Mandela

James A. Joseph was the U.S. ambassador to South Africa during much of Nelson Mandela's presidency. In this archival video, he talks about lessons he gleaned from Mandela. Many of those stories are also highlighted in his book, "Leadership as a Way of Being."

Featured Video

James Joseph: Saved for a Purpose

As a senior member of the Carter administration, James Joseph faced a seemingly impossible ethical dilemma. The people of the island of Bikini wanted to return to their land in the wake of nearby U.S. nuclear testing. Joseph knew the land was still contaminated; the coconuts were radioactive. Yet the people had voted to return. Should he honor the democratic process?