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Students Greet Nelson Mandela at Yankee Stadium

07/02/2013 09:37 am ET | Updated Sep 01, 2013

In June 1990, Nelson Mandela traveled to the United States for a twelve-day, eight-city, campaign to keep economic and political pressure on the government of South Africa to end apartheid and accept majority rule. Mandela, leader of the African National Congress or ANC, had been released from prison in February 1990 after twenty-seven years of incarceration. His crime was demanding full human and civil rights for the Black African population of South Africa.

Members of the Franklin K. Lane High School Forum Club held a hasty meeting during exam week to plan how they could be involved. Lane was a largely minority high school on the Brooklyn-Queens border in New York City. Students were primarily Black and Latino, many from immigrant families. The Forum Club was an independent student group, chartered by the Student Government, that sponsored student-led forums on controversial issues, prepared reports on school finances and presented them as testimony at public hearings, wrote position papers for publication in local newspapers, and had organized student and community support for a school-based public health clinic.

Club members considered themselves anti-apartheid activists. Starting in 1986, they began participating in a variety of anti-apartheid activities. A delegation from the Forum Club marched in a Washington DC rally promoting a boycott of apartheid South Africa. Members wrote and distributed position papers and lesson material on apartheid in school and even sponsored a representative from the ANC delegation to the United Nations who visited Lane and spoke with students.

Forum Club members decided they had to go to Yankee Stadium to greet Nelson Mandela, a real life 20th century hero of the struggle for human rights and social justice everywhere in the world. We arranged to borrow a school bus from a local community group. At 5 PM on June 21, I met students in front of the school on Jamaica Avenue and then drove up Jamaica east to Woodhaven Boulevard and back west on Atlantic Avenue. Students waited at bus stops with their parental permission slips and the price of a ticket, twenty dollars. Eventually twenty-eight students and I headed to Yankee Stadium.

On the bus ride we sang the anti-apartheid song "Asikatali" over and over again.

Asikatali

We are the children of Africa,
And it's for freedom that we're fighting now.
We are the children of Africa,
And it's for freedom that we're fighting now.

Chorus in Zulu:
Unzima lomtwalo, ufuna madoda
Unzima lomtwalo, ufuna madoda.
Asikatali, nomas'ya bozh, sizimiseli nkululeko,
Asikatali, nomas'ya bozh, sizimiseli nkululeko,

A heavy load, a heavy load,
It's gonna take some real strength
A heavy load, a heavy load,
It's gonna take some real strength.

(Chorus)

We do not care if we go to jail,
If it's for freedom then we'll gladly go.
We do not care if we go to jail,
If it's for freedom then we'll gladly go.

(Chorus)

At Yankee Stadium the students unfurled our twenty-foot long 4-foot wide canvas banner, "Franklin K. Lane HS Students against Apartheid," and paraded around the upper deck of the grandstands chanting "Amandla," a Xhosa and Zulu word meaning "power," and singing with the crowd. Nelson Mandela was down on the field far away from us, but we were with him. He was part of our struggle on that historic day; we were part of his. Over twenty years later, participation in this historic event with my students remains one of the highlights of my teaching career. For me, it is what teaching is all about.

President Barack Obama, on a recent visit to South Africa while Nelson Mandela lay in the hospital on his deathbed, "reaffirmed the profound impact that his legacy has had in building a free South Africa, and in inspiring people around the world -- including me."

As a high school social studies teacher and a teacher educator I like to examine with students the relationship between individuals and historical events. Essential question we discuss are "Whether the individual makes history or history makes the individual?" and "Are people like Alexander the Great, Joan of Arc, George Washington, Toussaint L'Ouverture, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela famous because of what they achieved or because they became symbols of much broader historical movements?" Personally, I am still not sure how to answer these questions myself.

But whatever answer you come up with for these questions, there is no question that Nelson Mandela, man, historical actor, activist, prisoner, and president, is a symbol for our time.

AMANDLA!