The greatest American civil rights leader of my lifetime was a South African.
I say this not just because Nelson Mandela's fight for equality and justice followed a path blazed by Henry David Thoreau and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I say this because he carried the torch for freedom at a time when it was under siege throughout the world. He held it high and with dignity, never letting it be extinguished by violence and recrimination.
Mandela's imprisonment, beginning in 1962, paralleled a bleak era for the rights of man. The Iron Curtain had descended across Europe. East Germany had begun building the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union had snuffed out the flickering light of liberty for all but a few favored friends. China and Cambodia would soon follow.
In our hemisphere, Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua and Fidel Castro's Cuba would foment revolution abroad while cracking down on political opposition at home. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan would risk everything to support these nations' freedom fighters.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the end of Colonial rule gave way not to pluralism but to authoritarianism. Instead of being a beacon of hope, South Africa was a dark star, trapped in a racist Apartheid system that was like Jim Crow on steroids. Blacks and other non-whites were banished to separate "bantustans." Political participation was forbidden. Marriage and sexual relations between races were criminalized.
Nelson Mandela was jailed for fighting this system. It cost him his own freedom for almost three decades. Sentenced to hard labor, he beat on white limestone rocks until nearly blind. While Soviet dissidents and refuseniks spread the word of freedom through samizdat, Mandela was allowed just two letters a year. He lived Ralph Ellison's words: "I am invisible, understand, because people refuse to see me."
As a child of the Reagan era, I was attuned to the cause of freedom. I read the works of Orwell and Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. I became a conservative to battle communism. I studied international politics (and Russian) at Penn State to gain the skills to do so.
As I did, I noticed something extraordinary was happening. Mandela's struggle had become the world's. America took notice of this prisoner and the millions caged by injustice. The sanctions movement gained new urgency. Artists took up the cause, refusing to play Sun City and giving the "gas face" to P.W. Botha. Singer Paul Simon was fiercely attacked for playing with South African musicians, even though they were hardly the face of Apartheid.
Back at Penn State, students built a "shantytown" on campus in solidarity. A group called the Black Student Coalition Against Racism (BSCAR) boycotted minority recruitment over the university's refusal to divest its funds from South Africa. At the time Penn State was under a court order to raise minority enrollment from 3.7 to five percent.
I was not unsympathetic to the cause. But I felt that making the college less welcoming to African-American students was not the answer. So my friends and I decided to form a group called the Association for the Recruitment and Retainment [sic] of Minority Students, or ARRMS.
Our first public meeting did not go well. Our sincerity was questioned, our perspective challenged. "You have no idea what it is like to be a black student here," said a campus minister according to the Daily Collegian. "We have a kinship to South Africans. You have failed to recognize that. I don't even think you understand the issue," said a student. The newspaper even printed an editorial cartoon mocking us as clueless white preppies.
Truth be told, I was irked that the fight against communism had been pushed to the back pages by South Africa. Childish, that. I also deplored the violent excesses of Mandela's African National Congress, such as "necklacing" suspected collaborators.
Nevertheless, I would come to recognize Mandela as one of the world's great freedom fighters. Just four years after his release, universal elections in South Africa were held. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed that exalted honesty and unity above vengeance and cruelty. Mandela retired from the presidency when he could have seized power indefinitely.
"Our transition has been managed with such success that some generously invokethe imagery of 'miracle'," he told Parliament upon his retirement. "Things such as equality, the right to vote in free and fair elections and freedom of speech, many of us now take for granted."
The nation that once threw Mahatma Gandhi off its trains and barred him from its hotels was transformed by (mostly) civil disobedience. The racist system that Dr. King once urged the world to "quarantine" was replaced by real democracy.
So Nelson Mandela deserves a place of honor with the dissidents and dreamers who knocked down the Berlin Wall and defeated the Soviet Union. And I am honored to have grown up watching it happen.