The remarkable life of Nelson Mandela, which began 95 years ago on this date, has inspired the world with a modern-day example of what strong and eloquent leadership can achieve.
Today is also worldwide Mandela Day, an annual call to action to follow the ailing human rights icon’s example and “take responsibility for changing the world into a better place, one small step at a time.”
Mandela’s legacy is a lifelong quest for justice, tempered by messages of reconciliation and forgiveness. The world will remember him alongside other extraordinary leaders, such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., who also represent the fight against oppression and racial injustice.
After his release from prison in 1990, Mandela embarked on a world tour that included an address to the U.S. Congress and a meeting with President George H.W. Bush.
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For many Americans, particularly African Americans, Mandela symbolized the universal triumph of basic human rights over racism, not just the defeat of South Africa’s apartheid. He spoke with a directness and grace seldom seen from U.S. political leaders, and he preached for simple equality, not special status.
His visit inspired many, even as it created considerable controversy. Mandela angered exiled Cubans in Miami and American Jews when he praised Fidel Castro, Moammar Gadhafi and Yasser Arafat because they had helped the African National Congress. That prompted criticism for Mandela’s apparent double standard.
“If there is no responsibility to assert human dignity except on one’s own turf, why should Americans be any more involved in judging South Africa (apartheid) than Mr. Mandela in judging Libya’s terrorism,” wrote one critic in The New York Times.
Mandela’s visit nevertheless energized the U.S. civil rights movement, especially within the black community that regards him as a modern-day Martin Luther King. He continues to be a source of hope for what strong and eloquent leadership can achieve.
Mandela’s family is shamefully turning his last days into a soap opera over control of his celebrity and a fortune worth millions. A great man deserves better than to be surrounded in his dying days by bickering relatives, lawsuits and even the exhuming (twice) of the bodies of his father and two children over a fight about where to bury Mandela.
Like those to whom he will be forever compared, Mandela has never stopped dreaming for a world — or at least one single nation in South Africa — where no person will suffer discrimination or be disadvantaged by the color of their skin.
Recent events in Florida serve as reminder that we have not yet realized Mandela’s dream.