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Nelson Mandela mourned like Martin Luther King

George Gresham | 12/12/2013, 2:44 p.m.
George Gresham, President 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

The word “icon” has become a cliché after careless overuse, but in the case of Mandela, the term is absolutely appropriate. He was a man of enormous courage, relentless determination, great vision and moral rectitude—a man for the ages, for sure.

By now, the outlines of his life have become the stuff of legend. He was born into tribal royalty, expelled from college for his anti-apartheid activism, rose to the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC), formed the ANC’s armed wing (Spear of the Nation) in reaction to the South African regime’s violent suppression of the movement, was arrested and put on trial, served 27 years of hard labor on Robben Island, spurned the regime’s request that he denounce violence and the struggle in return for release from prison and finally, while in prison, negotiated the end of apartheid with the regime, was released from prison and elected as the first president of a free South Africa.

His is a story of biblical proportions: a shackled prisoner on an isolated island acquiring through the force of his example more power and influence than the government that imprisoned him.

We in 1199SEIU have special memories of Mandela. We are extremely proud that many of our leaders and members went to jail in anti-apartheid civil disobedience actions at the South African Consulate in New York and U.S. Embassy in Washington, D.C. This was at a time when our own government was an ally of the apartheid government and considered Mandela a “terrorist.”

When, upon his release from prison, Mandela came to New York, we in 1199 were privileged to partner with former Mayor David Dinkins, the late Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch, Harry Belafonte and other longtime friends of our union in hosting this most special visitor. Over 1 million New Yorkers turned out to welcome him, from John F. Kennedy Airport to Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York, City Hall and a parade up Broadway, all the way to Yankee Stadium.

In subsequent post-apartheid years, we were privileged to witness Mandela’s inauguration as president of a free South Africa. Subsequently, we have organized many exchanges and visits between 1199ers and South African health care workers and human rights and labor leaders.

It was a sad but fitting irony that we learned of Mandela’s passing on Dec. 5 while presiding over a memorial service for Lynch at our union headquarters. In attendance were Dinkins, Basil Paterson, Elinor Tatum, Hazel Dukes and so many anti-apartheid activists and early admirers of Nelson Mandela. While he could not be with us that day for obvious reasons, we are enormously proud that Patrick Gaspard, one of Lynch’s top lieutenants in City Hall during the Dinkins administration and the executive vice president of our union, is now U.S. ambassador to South Africa.

There will be attempts to airbrush and neuter Mandela as has been done with King, as many portray the latter as simply a “dreamer” and not a social revolutionary. As Americans, it is important to remember the dishonorable role our own government played in the Mandela story. It was the CIA who helped the apartheid regime arrest Mandela. The White House—especially in the Reagan years—and much of Congress supported apartheid and condemned Mandela as a terrorist. It was not until 2008—18 years after the end of apartheid and nine years after his presidency of South Africa—that Mandela was removed from the U.S. government’s “Terror Watchlist.”

Mandela was an extraordinary human being. He will never simply be an object of admiration and respect, although he has always been that. But his life is also a challenge to all of us to find “the better angels” within ourselves. We best honor the memory of Mandela, like King, not with our words, but with our actions in the ongoing struggle for human rights, labor rights and social justice. Amandla ngawethu! Power to the people!