CHICAGO (CBS) – Nelson Mandela is being remembered as a humble but determined leader who became a symbol of freedom and justice for millions of South Africans and people around the world.
Mandela spent nearly three-decades of his life behind bars as a political prisoner of the ruling white South African government and fierce opponent of Apartheid. His rise to the world stage began in earnest on Feb. 11, 1990 and a Chicago civil rights leader was there to see it first-hand.
Mandela died today at age 95, the South African government announced shortly before 4 p.m. Chicago time.
“I shall never forget that moment,” said Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was in South Africa that day when Mandela walked out of prison after a 27-year confinement. Jackson became one of the first people to greet the just-freed Mandela.
“Nelson Mandela becomes this huge transformative force because he did the unusual. After 27 years in jail, one would expect retribution. He chose reconciliation, renewal and redemption. Unearned suffering has redemptive power that can even transform a nation.”
Jackson considers Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. to be two of the most important figures of the last half century.
“Both battled discrimination and prejudice but neither of them internalized it. They used the crisis and created opportunity. One man created a new America, the other a new South Africa. Both created a new world standard for justice, hope, renewal and redemption.”
Mandela visited Chicago in July 1993. Then-Mayor Daley presented him with a key to the city during his two-day trip here.
According to Jackson, Mandela’s life as a political prisoner-turned president, like Dr. King’s life, is a testament to social justice and the ability to win freedom through determination and peaceful resistance.
“The forces of hatred and hurt met the forces of healing and hope and healing and hope prevailed. They both went to jail and used jail to gain attention. They both saw reconciling racists as the way of the future. They saw a key to peace in the world was education and right to vote,” said Jackson.
“Both of them saw the world through a door and not through a keyhole. They both saw the bigger picture. They did not succumb to the racism they were trapped in. They did not internalize racism. They chose to move from racial battleground to common ground to find where our common humanities converge.”
Mandela’s 90th birthday in 2008 inspired tributes from around the world and right here in Chicago.
Musicians with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic performed a four-movement orchestral and vocal tribute titled “Hope in Action” to honor Mandela’s achievements and his long walk to freedom.
Jackson hopes the story of South Africa’s freedom fighter inspires generations to come and says all one has to do is listen to Mandela’s own words like those delivered in a speech after he was freed from prison.
“When dealing with enemies, when dealing with people who have been harsh towards you, it is always wise to remember that the greatest glory of living lies not in never falling but rising every time you fall,” said Mandela.