Emmett Burns has been protesting since he was 15.

The Maryland delegate and Lochearn preacher was born in Jackson, Miss., where he picketed in 1966 with Medgar Evers, an NAACP demonstrator who was instrumental in the desegregation of the University of Mississippi. Burns says he is a "proud jailbird," following his arrest in Washington during an anti-apartheid march in the early 1980s.

All his life, he has tried to emulate the example of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president who ended apartheid and was buried Sunday. Burns dedicated his Sunday service at Rising Sun First Baptist Church to memorializing Mandela and encouraging people to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which Burns sees as a crucial initiative, especially for the poor and uninsured.

For him, the connect is simple: He likened those fighting against the health care law, aimed at providing insurance to everyone in America, to those fighting "tooth-and-nail" to hold onto segregation and apartheid.

No one was more inspiring for the black masses than Mandela, Burns said to the hundreds in attendance Sunday. "There had been Gandhis" in other races and countries, he said, but Mandela was one of a kind.

"He didn't wield a sword or shoot a gun," Burns said. "He relied on moral authority."

Mandela's ability to forgive those who imprisoned him and bring whites and blacks together in a period of tumult boggles Burns, like many others.

"I don't know how he did it," Burns said.

Congregation members ended the service singing "We Shall Overcome" and signed a book of condolences that will be sent to the Mandela family via the South African embassy. A group called Pray at the Pump urged folks to sign up for health care as "the best way to honor Mandela," said to Rocky Twyman, a member of both the movement and the church.

"We especially targeted young people," Twyman said, adding they will be the ones who will decide whether the program is successful.

Burns said it's still an issue of the haves and the have-nots.

"The movement has changed," he said. "The battle is not about apartheid. ... It's about a job, not being able to afford to put food on the table, having to decide between food or medicine."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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