Honoring Nelson Mandela

Perhaps once in a generation, a man...a movement...and a moment come together on a mission for freedom that is so powerful, so courageous, so just...that all the guns and dogs, hatred and violence, deprivation and force that can be mustered cannot turn them back. It has been our good fortune for that moment to come within our lifetimes, and a great blessing that it came in the person of Nelson Mandela.

He has helped us to see the truth with the utmost clarity, has guided us in the path of reconciliation of our differences and, by his example, has given us the courage to let the light of liberty shine through our fears. In his Inaugural Address, he spoke to his belief that each person has the ability to contribute to making the world a better place. "As we are liberated from our own fear," he said, "our presence automatically liberates others."

We New Yorkers take great pride in our role in the liberation of South Africa. We are proud to have helped to focus international attention on the rights of human beings to control their own destinies, and to compel our nation to take the high ground in moving from "constructive engagement" to anti-apartheid.

The release of Nelson Mandela from prison meant much to us, and how sweet that victory was when, after more than 27 years behind bars, he walked out of his prison cell on Robben Island. He entered that cell a prisoner, but exited those walls and stepped onto the world stage, a free man...recognized and embraced in every nation as a leader in the global fight for freedom.

I recall as if it were yesterday watching, filled with pride, as he descended from the plane at JFK Airport and set foot for the first time on American soil. New York City welcomed him as our own personal champion, and New Yorkers of all races and ethnic groups showered him with ticker-tape in a Canyon of Heroes reserved for the very few. From East New York to East Harlem, freedom-loving people lined the streets, four and five-deep to catch a glimpse as he traveled through the City to Gracie Mansion where he was our guest during his visit to our City.

I recall the first time I was able to visit South Africa while Mayor, as a guest of President Mandela and the ANC and the leader of a delegation of New Yorkers. I cannot begin to describe what a powerful experience that visit was for me and my wife Joyce. We were overwhelmed by the extraordinary courage of black South Africans despite extreme hardship, by their amazing combination of hope and spirit. We remember an impromptu choir of children who gathered in their bathrobes to sing to us at Baragwanath Hospital, lifting their voices and our spirits with them.

And I will never forget the hope and spirit I witnessed once again when I returned in 1994 with the African American Institute as an official observer of the elections. I saw thousands of people waiting patiently, some for as long as six hours in a heavy rain, to cast the first votes of their lives. I saw the first person to vote in one township - an elderly woman borne by her sons on a blanket held taut like a stretcher, too weak to walk but strongly determined to vote.

I saw it at Archbishop Desmond Tutu's church, where hundreds of black, white, Indian and "colored" South Africans extended to each other the sign of peace, embracing one another in a quiet, breathtaking show of unity. I saw it when the dignified Archbishop literally leaped with joy after voting for the first time in his life, and as President Mandela and hundreds of thousands of his supporters danced the toi-toi in celebration of his victory.

This was an historic time about which we all dreamed, but it was also one for which many gave their last measure. President Mandela, Archbishop Tutu and their fellow architects of a free South Africa deserve great credit for the wisdom, courage, foresight and leadership that set the new nation on the path to peaceful coexistence. Only visionaries such as these two, together with many courageous white South Africans, could have conceived of such a revolutionary resolution. This was indeed a victory for all South Africans, a lesson for the world, and reason to believe that there will yet be peace in the Middle East.

We are all mindful of the spirit of nearly a century of struggle that he embodies, the lesson of endurance he teaches, the open hand he has extended to those who recognize the righteousness of reconciliation. And next month, a world still in crisis and thirsty for leadership who value humanity and harmony will pause to recognize his birthday...and his heroism - 67 years of heroism.

President Mandela, affectionately known as "Madiba," has had a tremendous impact on the world over 67 years of campaigning for human rights, but the struggle is not yet over. And so, on the occasion of his 91st birthday, he invites us to join our global neighbors in devoting 67 minutes of our time to make an imprint by helping others.

On July 18, the campaign that bears his Robben Island cell number - 46664 - and the Nelson Mandela Foundation will mark the culmination of a week-long New York City celebration with a concert at Radio City Music Hall with performances by a star-studded group of American and international artists. Funds raised from Mandela Day will support the ongoing work of 46664, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and other Nelson Mandela charitable organizations - the Mandela Rhodes Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, on whose board of directors I am privileged to serve.

On this first Mandela Day, we might be reminded of the words of the ANC freedom song that pays homage to Chief Luthuli. "We are," it says, "the soldiers of Luthuli. Wherever we may be, we pledge to bear witness to the nobility of our cause." At this moment in history, and as long as there are people who hold dear the principles to which Nelson Mandela has dedicated his life, we can proudly say that "We are the soldiers of Madiba."