12/13/2013 10:13 am ET Updated Feb 12, 2014

Los Angeles Was With Mandela on His Long Walk to Freedom

In the lobby of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, the headquarters of Los Angeles County government, there is an altar this week to Nelson Mandela, where anyone who walks by may write a message in a bound book of condolences.

Los Angeles may be thousands of miles and several time zones from South Africa, but every few minutes someone stops to sit at the black-clothed table to pen a few words about a man whose life touched theirs. The messages reveal the many ways people identify with Mandela, who died last Thursday at 95.

One commenter thanked Mandela for "support to HIV/AIDS researchers and patients." Another called his 1990 appearance outside Los Angeles City Hall "one of the most inspiring moments of my life." The messages are in the voice of Los Angeles: "Fight On," wrote one well-wisher, "Vaya Con Dios," said another. I could not resist signing "Amandla, NgaWethu!" the anti-apartheid rallying cry of "Power to the people."

The outpouring of emotion locally speaks to the ways Mandela's life and struggle involved a reciprocal relationship with the United States and Los Angeles. Mandela had said in interviews that the U.S. civil rights movement and events such as the 1965 Watts riots were keenly followed by him, his African National Congress comrades as well as the whites ruling South Africa during his 27 years in prison. Mandela saw the experience of African Americans in the U.S. as an example for his own people's fight for civil rights.

In the years following the civil rights movement, the movement to dismantle apartheid became a formative cause for generations of U.S. activists. As a University of Southern California doctoral student in social criticism and social change I wrote my dissertation on "constructive engagement," President Ronald Reagan's failed policy toward South Africa.

The Reagan administration hoped friendly persuasion or quiet diplomacy would make conditions better. The stated goal of constructive engagement was compromise in the context of incremental change. It was tantamount to dancing with the devil. Fortunately that policy collapsed.

Los Angeles was really a leader in the anti-apartheid movement, in the public, private, religious and academic sectors. Mayor Tom Bradley led a successful effort to get the City of Los Angeles to divest its financial holdings tied to South Africa. At colleges across Los Angeles, students demonstrated to get their own schools to divest their endowments from companies doing business with the apartheid regime.

In July, President Barack Obama told students at the University of Cape Town that his involvement in the divestment movement as an Occidental College student "was the first time I ever attached myself to a cause. It was the first time also that I ever gave a speech."

Looking back, "I know now that something inside me was stirring at that time, something important. And that was the belief that I could be part of something bigger than myself; that my own salvation was bound up with those of others," President Obama said.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Mayor Bradley invited him to Los Angeles, and Mandela said it was important for him to come to Los Angeles to personally acknowledge the achievement of Bradley's election. Mandela might then have had an inkling that he would be elected president of his nation. But I doubt Mandela --like many of us in the U.S.-- could have anticipated that an African American would become president of the United States in his lifetime, much less a man who was drawn into politics as a student inspired by Mandela.

This week, I've seen the women and men pausing at the memorial to Mandela in my building lobby as I arrive for work.They are government workers reporting for duty, like me, or residents coming to pay property taxes, apply for licenses or permits or to meet with officials. These are the routine tasks of democratic government, normally carried out without much thought of any global significance.

But for this brief period, those who pause to reflect and record their thoughts in that book of condolences, feel a deep connection to Nelson Mandela's fight for freedom in South Africa, and our own practice of democracy in America.