By Riley Manning
In his ode to Nelson Mandela, the beloved and revered South African president who died Thursday, President Barack Obama said Mandela “achieved more than could be expected of any man. He belongs to the ages.”
Mandela’s release from jail in 1990, and his election to president in 1994, came at a time when America’s civil rights movement was fresh in recent memory.
“Mandela was crucial figure to look to at a time when the American civil rights movement was really directionless,” said Susan Glisson, executive director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. “Under Reagan and Nixon, the issues of the poor and disposessed were downplayed. The riots of the ’90s happened because people were angry with not being heard. They thought no one cared…”
Going into jail, she said, Mandela advocated any resistance possible to apartheid, but when he emerged, his attitude was surprising.
“Everyone expected him to have a vengeful heart,” Glisson said. “But he shocked people by speaking about reconciliation and forgiveness. It showed we could also rise to that level of humanity.”
The Rev. Robert Jamison, who helped found the Tupelo branch of the NAACP in the 1960s, said Mandela also showed grace by the way he lived his life.
“He learned the only way he was going to change Africa, his home, was by loving, not by hating,” Jamison said. “To me, Mandela is the kind of person I would want to raise my kids to be like, who puts his country, and other people, before himself.”
Mississippi State University economics Professor Meghan Millea took sabbatical in 2008 to work in South Africa’s economic education system. The “Mandela culture” she said, is still present in the attitudes of Africans.
“In office, Mandela took tangible steps to institutionalize inclusiveness,” she said. “His policies fostered helpful dialogue and worked to offset the repercussions of the apartheid system. South African youth today still sense him as a person who made possible for them the access to a good education, hope for a good job, and fair, humane treatment in general.”