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Nelson Mandela: Beloved in Boston

Nelson Mandela: Beloved in Boston
Nelson Mandela greets supporters upon his arrival at Logan Airport. (behind) Governor Michael Dukakis, Mayor Raymond Flynn, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, state Rep. Shirley Owens-Hicks, Kitty Dukakis. (Photo: Don West)

Author: Don WestNelson Mandela pauses to chat with City Councilor Charles Yancey during his arrival at Logan Airport in 1990.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela achieved mythical status through the astonishing feat of removing the chains of bondage from both the oppressed and the oppressor.

The outpouring of love and grief over his death last week at age 95 was a testament to the power of his redemptive life and a stark reminder that men of such stature rarely walk the earth.

Shut away in prison for 27 years, the man who was born a Xhosa prince became a global symbol of the freedom movement in South Africa though few had ever met him or could even say what he looked like after nearly three decades behind bars.

What struck the world like a thunderbolt after his release from prison in 1990 was his gospel-like message of forgiveness and reconciliation. The fervor of his dedication to a peaceful transition caused the edifice of apartheid to crumble.

The weapons of love and tolerance multiplied the moral force of Mandela’s resurrection from his prison exile and led to a negotiated end to apartheid. His approach achieved what the armed struggle had not — the end of the second-class citizenship that had denied over 24 million black South Africans the right to vote, own property, sign contracts, speak freely and assemble openly. In short, to breathe the air of freedom.

As the shackles fell to the ground, Mandela also lifted a moral burden from the white minority by praising many of his jailers for their kindness, preserving a place in government for the party of apartheid, and affirming the Afrikaners culture. He famously donned the jersey of the national rugby team, the Springboks, and cheered on the multi-racial national side to victory in rugby’s world championship over the “All Blacks” of New Zealand.

Watching Mandela bask in the chants of “Nelson! Nelson!” was like seeing Christ with a strategic plan, a saintly head of state methodically breaking down every barrier of resistance until, like the Roman centurion at the Cross, the legionnaires of apartheid lay down their swords and worshipped the man they would crucify.

Reaching out to Afrikaners through their beloved rugby was balanced by his support of bringing the favored sport of black townships, soccer, to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup.

His Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided the masterstroke of burying the hatchet of enmity, though economic parity would prove harder to achieve.

Long before pulling off the miracle of peaceful change, the African National Congress leader had a broad base of political and popular support in Boston.

Harvard Yard was ground zero of the national campaign to divest university funds from companies doing business in South Africa, hosting huge rallies and debates over the responsibility of corporate and academic America to cut the economic legs out from under injustice.

Twenty years before Mandela took his long walk to freedom, a Polaroid employee named Caroline Hunter and her husband Ken Williams raised objections to the company producing the passbooks that controlled the movements of the black majority in South Africa. Their organized protests led the Boston company to drop the contract and spurred similar divestment activities around the country.

In the mid-1980s, maverick political activist Andrew Jones launched a campaign for the black neighborhoods of Boston to secede and form the new municipality of Mandela in honor of the imprisoned leader. The campaign generated a welcome debate but fell short at the polls. It did, however, leave one indelible mark: The word “Mandela” in white letters running vertically down the brick façade of a re-christened housing development along Washington Street in Lower Roxbury.

Down in Washington, U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts was the author of the historic Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, forbidding U.S. companies from doing business in South Africa. The measure was enacted over President Reagan’s veto by a vote of 78-21 in the Senate and 313-83 in the House.

Two decades earlier, U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had travelled to South Africa to directly and very publicly challenge white rule. He sought to meet with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island and was denied. Flying out of Cape Town after delivering his famous “Ripples of Hope” speech, he ordered the pilot to fly over the rocky outcropping and dip the plane’s wings in tribute to the imprisoned African National Congress leader.

Kennedy cited the courage of the Robben Island prisoners in a LOOK magazine essay, titled “Suppose God Is Black,” published weeks after his return from the apartheid nation.

Boston activists led the campaign to suppress the sales of Krugerrand gold coins from South Africa in the U.S., staging protests in front of the Deak-Perera foreign exchange and precious metals office in Downtown Boston until it shuttered its doors.

When plans for an eight-city U.S. tour were drawn up shortly after Mandela’s release, Boston figured high on the list.

A quarter million people showed up on the Esplanade to see Mandela. When he stepped to the podium at the Hatch Shell, the song “Free Nelson Mandela” came blaring over the loudspeakers. Tall and elegant, the white-haired revolutionary in a gray suit and Windsor tie began dancing. The crowd roared its approval and waved flags with the yellow, green and black stripes of the ANC.

Mandela praised Bostonians for their leading role in the anti-apartheid struggle and spoke of a special affinity between the Hub and the ANC.

“Your pioneering role in taking positive measures against apartheid portray the deep feeling of kinship you hold towards our people and the just cause that they are so vigorously fighting for,” said the 75-year-old future president. “It was you who rallied around our cause at a time when we had to stand on our own all by ourselves and thus you became the conscience of American society, a treasured beacon within and beyond the boundaries of this great nation.”

Mandela also cited the historic parallels in the fight for freedom between South Africa and Boston. “It was here that the Boston Tea Party served notice that the citizens of this country would not live under domination by the British,” he said. “And that was the establishment of a fundamental principle which has inspired democracies, democrats, freedom fighters and revolutionaries all over the world.”

One parallel that went unstated was the pall of racial tension still hanging over Boston in the aftermath of the explosive Charles Stuart murder case. Mandela’s appearance came just months after the Newbury Street furrier shot his pregnant wife to death while parked in a Mission Hill housing project and blamed the assault on a fictional black man. The subsequent hunt for the assailant tore at the city’s fragile racial fabric.

Mandela’s appearance, greeted by people from every race and walk of life, served as a healing moment.

In later events that day, Mandela’s reception was equally rapturous. He attended a packed rally at Madison Park High School and received a bust of President John F. Kennedy from members of the Kennedy family at the JFK Library. Mandela joked that he felt “like an honorary Irishman from Soweto.”

After his election as president in 1994, Mandela received frequent visitors from Boston and participated in an unusual negotiating session organized by a local professor who brought together Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists from Northern Ireland to discuss reconciliation in the war-torn British province.

Padraig O’Malley, a University of Massachusetts Boston professor, documented how Mandela’s strategic wisdom helped map out a path to peace one year before the historic 1998 Good Friday agreement ended the armed conflict.

During his lifetime, Mandela was vilified as a terrorist and a communist. But he was no murderer and never a stooge of Moscow. He was a force of racial liberation and racial reconciliation, rejecting both black and white separatism in favor of a gospel of plurality.

“I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination,” he said to the court at the time of the trial that ended with a life sentence. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and see realized. But, my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”