As a lawyer and activist, Nelson Mandela, the first democratically-elected president of South Africa spent almost his entire life fighting against injustice in his country. During 27 years of imprisonment, he continued to influence people all across the world with his message of equality. His message was heard loud and clear in American, the South; and it had a huge impact on the views of the youth of my generation – especially me.
It was the mid-1980s and South African apartheid was at the fore of the international stage in a way that it hadn’t been before. Mandela was again at the center of the debate. There was a call for intensified economic sanctions and political pressure from around the globe. I was an undergraduate at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and this was my moment.
I joined other young adults from Fisk, Vanderbilt University, Tennessee State University, and Meharry Medical College, as we conducted peaceful protests focusing our attention on corporations in the Nashville area who did business in South Africa. We also placed pressure on trustee members associated with our respective institutions who had either direct or indirect investment ties that supported apartheid.
In addition, on the Fisk campus, there was a steady and vigilant campaign to free Nelson Mandela from prison–the issue was referenced regularly in class; discussed formally and informally among students; and displayed prominently on posters, non-commissioned public art or graffiti, t-shirts, and other paraphernalia. It’s not too surprising that we felt a kinship to South Africa given that the university’s most famous son was W.E.B. DuBois, a man whose contributions to racial justice loomed large in the Fisk experience.
Fast forward to less than a decade later, I was working as a special assistant to the mayor of Indianapolis. In my role, I was selected to be the city’s liaison for the 1993 National Convention of the NAACP.
It was the first and only time the convention had been held in the city and this was a BIG deal. We didn’t know in the beginning stages of planning that we would be blessed to have Mr. Mandela attend and address the audience…as a free man!
Even more so, the NAACP awarded Mandela with the W.E.B. DuBois International Medal. This was one of life’s full circle moments for me.
As a college student, Mandela’s message empowered me to speak up. As a civil servant and admirer, I was humbled by his presence, and now as the head of an organization dedicated to ending institutionalized racism, I am motivated to work for racial and ethnic justice.
Today the world celebrates Mandela’s legacy and we all are indebted to his sacrifice; his example proves once again the power of one; and the moment to act is now.
Dr. Michael R. Twyman
Director, UALR Institute on Race and Ethnicity