Nelson Mandela, a 20th-century statesman of towering moral stature, and I grew up worlds apart; his was South Africa and apartheid; mine was America and the Jim Crow South — both worlds of de facto second-class citizenship and racial separation.
Both, too, were worlds of systematic disenfranchisement, worlds of veils of black people and white people being of equal importance and veils of the two living peacefully together. They were worlds requiring fighting back at considerable risk and within the limitation of unjust rules and laws.
"Citadels of oppression," if you may, forcing citizens to dedicate their lives to resistance movements in their respective countries, in Mandela's case, South Africa and in my case, the deep rural South of America.
Having been there on Massachusetts Avenue at the South African Embassy fighting for American divestitures in South Africa, I knew full citizenship was not being afforded to the people of South Africa. So when Mandela arrived at the United States Department of State, where I was several feet away from him, I saw in his eyes, as he walked into a lobby full of whites and blacks mingling together to greet him upon his arrival to this country for the first time, awe — followed by a broad, charismatic smile.
It was the same kind of awe experienced by me when I first helped organize participants for the 1963 March on Washington or when I was first introduced to Columbia — that it was indeed possible for blacks and whites to exist peacefully while sharing the same worlds. Or perhaps better yet, that, as Bill Clinton was to later say, "of the possibility of true freedom and forgiveness" to be reached.
Mandela introduced a "sea change" in South Africa. As President Barack Obama said: "Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa — and moved all of us." His journey from a prisoner to a president, Clinton said, "embodied the promise that human beings — and countries — can change for the better."
Equally important, as the president says of Mandela: "Never discount the difference that one person can make."
Mandela stood apart; his was an epic struggle on the right side of history. As someone said, "we now know from him that we can make the world a better place" and we can do it as one.
Sherman Howell is vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun