Credit: Leroy Applin

As part of the welcoming committee, I was at the John F. Kennedy Airport when Nelson and Winnie Mandela, along with members of the African National Congress (ANC), landed at the airport. We had been waiting for hours, waiting like children used to wait anticipating Santa Claus coming. We were eager and giddy, walking around nervously.

We were making vapid conversations about anything, trying to pass the time and remain calm. I remember the Rev. Jesse Jackson straightening my tie as though he wanted to make me presentable for the coming of Nelson Mandela.

Finally, someone sent the word that the plane was arriving. The news went through the crowd, and we began to line up in the places in which we were assigned. Then the plane landed. Everyone was tippy-toed and wide-eyed with bated breath. Then he stepped on the doorway to the plane. He was smiling broadly in his emendable smile. His eyes were small, squinting-like, but seemingly taking in the whole scene. His fist went into the air, making what we used to call the “Black Power” sign, which now signifies power. Slowly, he stepped down from the plane.

I, along with others, went forward to shake his hand. It was dreamlike. Was I dreaming? Was this real? At that point in time, we had been on the forefront for over 20 years of the Free South Africa-Free Mandela Movement. We had organized and participated in countless demonstrations, boycotts, rallies, workshops and civil disobedience.

In 1986, I led New York’s civil disobedience and encouraged my whole family—my wife and four children—to go to jail in front of the South African Mission in Manhattan. And now, the man whose name we had called countless times, there I was, in his presence, shaking his hand. We smiled, and my mind went blank after that. The next thing I knew, he was moving along the line, shaking the hands of others, still with that smile fixed on his face.

As a member of the welcoming committee, I was privileged to be in his entourage and/or be at most of the events where he was present, including a side room in City Hall where we had a private conversation with Harry Belafonte and my wife, Dr. Karen S. Daughtry. Mandela was profuse in his gratitude and appreciation for what we had done. I was present, seated on the front row, when he made his speech at City Hall.

I participated in the program when he spoke at the Riverside Church. I do want to express my appreciation to Dr. Wyatt Walker, the former chief of staff of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was he who used his influence to secure a place in the program for me.

Years later, when he returned to the United States again, I was at the White House during William Clinton’s presidency for his last reception in the USA.

I’m often asked to give my impression of Mandela. As I have mentioned, the smile, the face, the toughness and tenderness captivate me. There was this syntheses that he seemed to have achieved, being powerful but not too much, and humble, yet not too much, but a perfect balance. Her personified Rudyard Kipling’s classic stanza: “You can talk with crowds and keep your virtue/Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch/If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you/If all men count with you, but none too much.”

He could overwhelm you without trying to. And when I shook his hand, there was a firmness, but not a squeeze to convince that he was in charge or that he was strong. He knew, and he made one know without trying that he was confident, self-assured, in charge, master of the situation and not trying to convince anyone of these qualities. Long after I had met him, I could not help thinking about him. Like some dramatic dream, the image stayed with me into the coming days.

I’m often asked, “Which of his accomplishments ranked highest in your mind? And what will be his greatest and most lasting legacy?”

  1. The invincibility of the human spirit.

By overcoming all of the cruelties to which he had been subjected, by rising from the depth of a prison to the heights of a presidency, personified that the human spirit is invincible. It is a message that has been taught by religious and secular leaders, but few have been able to actualize it. In my most recent book, “Made to Master,” I wrote that Mandela personified all that I was trying to say regarding what we all have within us: the gift, the Creator, the capacity to rise above every cruelty, confinement and confrontation.

  1. His capacity to make friends of his foes.

Yes, forgiveness is a part of this, but Mandela went beyond forgiveness of his enemies. He embraced his enemies and turned them from those who persecute him to those who promote him. His jailor at Robbins Island is a classic example of what I mean, and it permeated his life, even when he was released. Mandela made the jailor his friend. Thus, the jailor taught him Afrikaans, the language of the whites in South Africa, because Mandela believed that one day he will be free and he wanted to reach out to the white population in South African and, indeed, throughout the world.

  1. Following hard on the heels of the above mentioned statement, Mr. Mandela demonstrated that one should never lose his/her dream or the visions of one’s imagination.

Even when he was in jail, he was planning what the members of the ANC and he were going to do when he was released. I was honored to deliver the opening sermon for the 20th anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison. They called it “The Mandela Moment.”

After the ceremonies, we were taken on a tour through the prisons of Robbins Island, and we traversed the actual street that Mandela walked on his walk to freedom. The guide paused atop a small valley and pointed to the base of the hill below and said this is where parliament, executives and judiciary met. When we asked him what he meant he said while Nelson and the ANC would come to this place to work there is a cave on the side of the hill where they would gather to escape the torrential downpour or to eat, and while there they began to sketch the constitution of South Africa and who would play which role in the new South Africa that would be liberated.

Nelson Mandela and members of the ANC left us a legacy to encourage us that what we visualize, we can actualize.

  1. Gratitude.

Sometimes it seemed that Mandela could not stop expressing appreciation and gratitude for what people had done to free South Africa and him, and to support his leadership. In our private conversation, when I was next to him as he spoke publicly, and from a distance when he spoke publicly, he always, somewhere in his speeches, there would be expressions of appreciation and gratitude. The legacy of appreciation and gratitude will always be a part of his memory.

Those are four areas of his life and, of course, there is so much more about him. Even if we had exhausted our vocabulary, we still would not have expressed the immensity of the man. I suspect, as the years roll by, he will take on even greater mythical remembrance. Like a mountain, the farther away we are from it, the more we appreciate its size.

Mandela knew—and this is what fed his appreciation and gratitude—there had to be some people who kept his name alive; there had to be some people somewhere who were remembering the horrors of South Africa. Yes, there was Winnie Mandela. Not enough has been said about Winnie Mandela’s role in the anti-apartheid movement, but she kept her then husband and the cruelties of South Africa ever before the world. She inspired my wife to create a women’s organization called Sisters Against South Africa Apartheid (SASSA), which was one of the most effective women’s organization in the Free South Africa Movement.

There were activists. Space does not allow me to call all of the names, but surely everyone would agree with me that the name of Elombe Brath would be connected with Mandela and South Africa.
 There were also movements, including the National Black United Front, which I headed; the All African People’s Revolutionary Party, which Kwame Toure headed; and the B12 movement, as well as people like Viola Plummer, Omowale Clay, Ron Daniels, Councilman Charles Barron. Elombe Brath. And Clemson Brown and many more.

One of my concerns is that in these times, imposters come to the scene who have done nothing but claim to have done everything. Even those who are enemies are now Mandela’s greatest supporters. People who criticized us are now claiming to be a part of the anti-apartheid movement. Thus, those who were in the vanguard, those who were suffered, beaten, chased through the streets of New York and jailed because they boycotted, demonstrated and, in a word, made sacrifices, and put their lives on the line are forgotten or marginalized.

Finally, there were countries that were supportive. It was amusing to the point of being sad that once Mandela was free, he had to respond to people who asked him why he befriended the president of Libya; Yassir Arafat; Fidel Castro; and Russian and Chinese leaders. His response was that these were the people and the countries that supported us, and he could not reject his friends who were there for us in the time of need because other people don’t like them, particularly when the other people supported the people in South Africa who had jailed him and who were keeping him jailed. Of course, I am paraphrasing, but that’s essentially what he said.

For example, Castro sent Cuban troops to fight the South African troops. Some people said had Castro not sent the troops, Nelson might still be in jail under apartheid rulers.