With Nelson Mandela's passing we bid farewell to a -- if not the -- towering figure of the 20th century. As dignitaries the world over pay their respects, let's not buy into any sanitized versions of his legacy. Mandela's was a radical vision, the African National Congress was called a terrorist organization by South Africa's then Apartheid regime. In fact, the US dropped Mandela from its terrorism watch list in 2008.
After serving 27 years in prison, Mandela came to New York in 1990 and was celebrated by then Mayor David Dinkins who presented him with the key to the city. I listened to Mandela's speech live on WBAI radio sitting in my parked car while on an extended lunch break from my newspaper job. He spoke of the Palestinian struggle, a particularly controversial subject in New York. At the end of his US tour, on my first trip to California, I heard Mandela speak live at the Oakland Coliseum. Rep. Ron Dellums delivered a fiery introduction, then Mandela spoke to us about his meetings with American Indians. Apartheid had not yet been defeated in his homeland and on both these occasions, he spoke to us about the ongoing Apartheids in which we as US Americans were often silently complicit.
Mandela went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and the following year, it was my turn on the copy desk at the San Juan Star newspaper to write the front-page headline when Mandela was elected president of South Africa. Headline writing is not very glamorous work, yet I felt honored; I labored in a state of sheer amazement and went with the word "historic" in the final version.
I was reminded at the time of a large protest at my undergraduate alma mater at Rutgers-Newark nearly a decade earlier, during his long imprisonment, in which students and professors demanded that university Board of Trustees divest its holdings with firms doing business in South Africa. President Ronald Reagan had at the time refused to approve sanctions against South Africa, but he was finally pressured into doing so.
Now as the 21st century is well underway, it appears as if economic Apartheid is again being more deeply institutionalized on a global scale. But Mandela's torch remains lit, and the struggle he stood for will continue with ethical force and clarity, even when up against monstrous power.
Thank you, Nelson Mandela -- we will never forget you! Rest in peace, Que en Paz Descanse. ¡Qué viva Nelson Mandela!
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post inaccurately stated that Nelson Mandela was dropped from the United States' terrorist watch list in 1994.