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Tavis Smiley

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My Afternoon With Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and Sidney Poitier

Posted: 01/03/2013 8:07 am

Friday, June 29, 1990.

I remember the day like it was yesterday. For days prior I couldn't sleep through the night, anxious with anticipation. Nelson Mandela was coming to Los Angeles, and I was plotting how I could position myself to meet him, shake his hand, hug him or maybe even take a photo with him. I was working overtime trying to devise a strategy that might find me, say, hiding out in a closet until he arrived for a private meeting with my boss, LA Mayor Tom Bradley, and a public rally to follow on the steps of City Hall.

Mandela was deputy president of the African National Congress, and Los Angeles was one of the final stops on a grueling 12-day, eight-city U.S. tour, part of a planned six-week international tour following his release from prison after 27 years. I was just a 25-year-old junior aide to Mayor Bradley back then (Mandela had been imprisoned for his beliefs longer than I had been living), and there was really no way, hard as I tried, that I was going to outwit or avoid what I now know to be a pretty standard building sweep by the Secret Service prior to the arrival of dignitaries and heads of state.

And so, sure enough, before Nelson and Winnie Mandela arrived, the Secret Service forced everyone out of the mayor's suite. Everyone except the mayor's LAPD security team. I could tell by the route Mandela was taking inside for the meeting and back out to the steps of City Hall for the rally, that there was no way I was going to get close to him. So, I decamped from my office and outside I stood with the tens of thousands of fellow citizens who had come downtown to cheer and celebrate this rarest of heroes.

I have always regarded Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the greatest American this country has ever produced. But King was dead before I was out of diapers. Here comes a freedom-fighter to my office who represents the closest thing to Kingian courage that I may ever meet. And here I am, stuck outside. Pouting.

Until someone yells that the mayor is asking for me. The Secret Service lets me back inside City Hall and I move quickly through the hallways, now filled with Mandela's entourage, to see what the mayor needs. All the while I am looking for a glimpse of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. The mayor whispers to me that of all the celebrities and personalities who had assembled on the lawn that day, Mandela wanted to personally greet Muhammad Ali and Sidney Poitier before he went outside to speak at the rally. My job? To go outside and escort Ali and Poitier back into the mayor's office.

OMG! Can you feel my accelerated heartbeat?! I immediately ran outside and secured Ali and Poitier as I had been told. When I opened the security door to the long hallway that led to the mayor's personal office and Mandela's entourage saw Ali and Poitier walking toward them... OH MY! I don't even have a language to describe the chants, the dancing, the full-faced smiles, the love, the joy, the sheer ecstasy in that hallway as we walked toward Nelson and Winnie Mandela standing alongside Mayor Bradley.

It is true: life is not so much about the breaths we take, but rather the moments that take our breath away. Precious memories. I have relived this moment countless times, and every time I think on it, I get joy unspeakable. From that day, I was able to start friendships with two iconic Americans, Muhammad Ali and Sidney Poitier. My life and my work have been greatly enriched and enhanced by their gifts and their friendship.

As for Mandela, I didn't get to sit for a conversation with him that day -- but I did get a handshake and a hug. What could be more inspiring for a 25-year-old African American male wanting to make a meaningful contribution to society? That handshake and that hug have meant more to me than words could ever express.

As Mandela is advancing in age and dancing with mortality, we have been asked by South Africa's current president to keep Mandela in our prayers. As I pray, I give thanks for his uncommon courage and unwavering commitment to justice for all, service to others and a love that liberates people.

Mandela's life and legacy remind us that, sooner or later, we have to give our fears an expiration date and work unceasingly to create the kind of world we want to inhabit.

 

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