With formal memorial ceremonies underway in South Africa this week, African-Americans from all walks of life continued to recall the monumental legacy of former President Nelson Mandela. In interviews, many credited him for their strength amidst U. S. racial struggles.
“The more I learned about Mr. Mandela, the more determined I became to fight lingering injustice here at home,” said attorney Janice Mathis of Atlanta. “As a young lawyer I became more active. I worked for the ERA, registered voters, was elected as a delegate to the DNC. It was during the anti-apartheid campaign that I learned the importance of corporate social responsibility. Today I am more conscious of the global implications of public policy because of the ANC liberation movement. We must be careful to heed Mr. Mandela’s edict that the liberation of South Africa came as the result of decades of struggle by thousands of committed people.”
Just up from the civil rights movement and still pushing for the complete dismantling of the vestiges of racial segregation, Blacks across the U. S. demonstrated in the streets, pushing municipal governments and the U. S. Congress to divest funds and cease to do business with the South African government until Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and apartheid was dismantled.
“Although I didn’t experience first-hand the inhumane ways of the Apartheid, It still deeply affected me because of my racial ties to Africa,” said Labert Davis, 49, a pharmaceutical sales representative of Farmington, Mich. He endured many years of imprisonment to stand up for his people. It has inspired me and encouraged me to continue to stand up for things I feel are right. And his movement reminded me that there was still hope for change.”
Kim Burrell, 50, a bank teller in New York, said Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment made her more conscious of inequities here at home.
“It opened my eyes to the continuous struggles we face as people of color; it made me very much aware of [the] difference one individual is capable of making,” she said. “Most importantly, as an African-American, it made me so very proud to be able to claim Mr. Mandela’s successes and victories as successes and victories for me and my African-American brothers and sisters worldwide.”
The Congressional Black Caucus led the national anti-apartheid fight by applying economic pressure. CBC members sponsored 15 bills over 14 years, said a statement released this week.
“In 1985, CBC Member Representative William H. Gray (D-PA), chairman of the Committee on Budget, introduced H.R. 1460, a bill that prohibited loans and new investment in South Africa and enforced sanctions on imports and exports with the nation,” said the statement from CBC Chair Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who was set to lead a CBC delegation to the official memorial this week. “Congress approved this legislation one year later, and it became known as the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. This legislation called for a trade embargo against South Africa and the immediate divestment of American corporations.”
Pressures that ultimately led to the freedom of President Mandela and the first Democratic election on Feb. 2, 1990, came from around the world. U. S. media attention also played a significant role in dismantling apartheid and solidifying the legacy of Mandela.
“I’ve had great opportunity to meet and interview countless dignitaries, government officials and celebrities and have pleased to do so but rarely have any of them had me awestruck. I can honestly say when I met President Mandela I was awestruck,” says broadcast journalist Ed Gordon, 53, of West Bloomfied Hills, Mich. “He decided to give his life to a cause and found something that he said he was willing to die for. He stood strong by that position; he didn’t do things like take offers to be freed when he was asked to compromise. “
Americans not only protested against apartheid, but helped to finance and provided strategic support to the grassroots fight against it.
Howard University Professor Dr. Vinetta Clara Jones of Bowie, Md. recalls an aunt who was married to South African freedom fighter Chucha Honono living in exile in Tanzania. Honono had been the headmaster of the school that Nelson Mandela attended and had done much of the writing for the underground movement to end apartheid, Jones said.
“When Chucha and my aunt would come to the United States to raise money for the anti-apartheid movement at various Universities, one of the Universities he would visit was Berkley. They would stay with my parents while they were in California. They would tell us stories about Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement. This was before we were hearing about it in the newspapers. I heard about these things before the general public knew.”
Jones recalls the strength and vision displayed by Chucha, who she quoted as saying, ‘“Freedom is going to come sooner than a lot of people believe.”’
That is the kind of resolve that inspired African-Americans to hold on - even facing racism themselves, says LaVera Robbins, 61, a retiree living in Montgomery, Ala.
“He influenced me the same way Martin Luther King Jr. did,” Robbins said. “He taught me although I may go through struggles, don’t give up. There is at least hope [for] a better day…With that perseverance, I have a better shot of obtaining the American Dream of success.”
One of the greatest character traits being attributed to Mandela this week is the character of forgiveness of the South African government and even those involved with the violent oppression of Blacks.
“Everyone knows Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years and everyone knows the story. But we must realize he could’ve come out of prison a very angry man but he came out with a clean heart and clear mind,” said Keith Doley of New Orleans, an attorney, honorary consul to South Africa.
“He knew that ending apartheid could very well have South Africa in a bloody civil war but he was astute enough to know that that would not do his country well and that the only way the country could survive was through reconciliation.”
Sabrina Monday, 52, a sales executive of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., says Mandela’s impact will be felt for generations.
“He taught me life-long lessons that I will pass on to my children. And prayerfully they will pass these lessons on to their children. These were messages of forgiveness, standing for what is right, believing big, and standing up when many will do whatever it takes to make you sit down,” Monday said.
Dozens of heads of state are expected at the official state memorial service to be held in Johannesburg this week, indicative of the universal impact of the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
“Mandela set an example of peacefulness while standing up for what you believe in for Blacks around the world, he was a constant reminder of hope in the midst of the struggles that stemmed from race and inequality,” said Steffanie Cadogan, 51, a Columbia, Md. school counselor.
Many see Mandela’s suffering and ultimate triumph as – not only an inspiration - but a lesson for the world.
“Most people would’ve cracked from that and lost all desire to do anything when they got out of there, especially in a hard labor camp,” marveled Rachon Lewis, 68, a veteran in Cincinnati. “He stayed focused, he came out, and he probably exceeded what he even thought he could do by becoming President.”
Agreeing, veteran civil rights activist, Julian Bond, former NAACP chairman, concludes:
“He set a high standard of bravery and perseverance that we would all do well to follow. He was truly a world figure who will not be soon forgotten and will long be missed. We can emulate his example and try to imitate his behavior, but we will not see his likes again soon.”
Edited by Hazel Trice Edney, a team of Howard University journalism students conducted interviews for this story. The students are Avery Allen, Kheprisa Burrell, Jazmyn Cadogan, Courtne’ Dixon, Brooke Davis, Brittany Donaldson, Taylor Gordon, Maya Cade, Shane Lewis, and Sydnee Monday.