Honoring Mandela: A Better Man, Not a Bitter Man

12/15/2013 05:06 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2014

The death of Nelson Mandela on December 5th -- also the very day the modern American Civil Rights Movement began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 -- marked for me the end of an era when leaders of unsurpassed courage and integrity walked among us. Although there are great leaders of freedom struggles alive and quite a few political prisoners still languishing in oppressive nations, Mandela's stature put him in a category all to himself.

My family's appreciation of Mr. Mandela dates back nearly a half century, long before millions knew who he was, when my father, Martin Luther King, Jr. was in London preparing for his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Peace to occur three days later in Oslo, Norway. While in London, he delivered an address on the struggle against apartheid, in which he said, "Today great leaders -- Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe -- are among the many hundreds wasting away in Robben Island prison." My father then went on to call for a "massive movement for economic sanctions," a call that my mother, Coretta Scott King repeatedly echoed in subsequent years during her efforts to build the anti-apartheid movement in the U.S.

My first introduction to South Africa's struggle for freedom came when I was just 17. I had volunteered to speak in my mother's stead at a United Nations forum on South Africa, because she was unable to attend on that occasion. It was the first time I had spoken at a major forum, and I remember feeling deeply honored to be part of such a great cause.

During the growing anti-apartheid movement in the U.S., my mother wrote articles about Mr. Mandela to educate the public at a time when few Americans knew who he was and she testified before the U.S. congress in support of sanctions legislation on several occasions during the 1980s. In 1983, The King Center spearheaded the 20th Anniversary March on Washington, attended by more than a half-million people, and anti-apartheid legislation was one of the ten legislative reforms advocated at the march, along with the King holiday. In 1985 I was arrested, along with my mother and brother, Martin III in a protest against apartheid at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C.

I became increasingly fascinated by the leadership of Mr. Mandela, who had been imprisoned during my whole life. I marveled at his tenacious spirit and dedication to the liberation of his people and his refusal to accept offers of release from prison in exchange for his pledge to silence his criticism of apartheid on at least four occasions. Most of all, I wondered how a man could have experienced that level of oppression and still have no bitterness.

I meditated on the similarities between Mandela and Joseph in the bible. Like Joseph, Mandela was unjustly imprisoned. Like Joseph, Mandela left the confines of imprisonment and became the head of state. Like Joseph, Madiba forgave those who had risen against him. Like Joseph he refused to be imprisoned or held hostage by feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness and revenge. Instead "The spirit of The Lord was upon Mandela for he was anointed to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who were oppressed." Yes he could have been a bitter man, but he was a better man.

In my view, it was no accident that Nelson Mandela was chosen by God, to lead the people of South Africa. There are very few people who could be imprisoned, kept away from their family and loved ones, and exit that same prison with such a powerful spirit of love and a desire for reconciliation. Reconciliation has the goal of turning your adversary into an ally, which is what President Mandela did when he invited the warden and others to join him in unifying the country and bringing people together. Only a better man, not a bitter man could do that.

I came to feel about Mandela the way many people seemed to feel about my father. Mandela was a constant source of inspiration for me, a matchless example of dignity and the healing power of forgiveness at a time when I was struggling with forgiving those who had caused so much hurt to my family.

After Mandela was finally freed from jail, my mother spearheaded the committee which hosted his 1990 visit to Atlanta and used the occasion to raise funds for the African National Congress. I was thrilled beyond measure to meet him when he visited the King Center. At a massive rally at Georgia Tech's Grant Field, my mother introduced Mandela with these words:

"A man with Nelson Mandela's background and brilliant intellect could have chosen a life of quiet comfort and prestige as an exile in another country. But, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela heard a different drummer, and he chose instead a life of personal sacrifice for the freedom of his people and his nation. When the apartheid regime sent Nelson Mandela to prison for life back in 1962, they thought that they had silenced a powerful voice for freedom. But how wrong they were, because no chains, no iron bars could still the revolutionary spirit of Nelson Mandela and his courageous colleagues in the African National Congress."

In fact his long years of imprisonment for the freedom of his people secured his stature as one of the greatest human rights leaders of world history. As my father and mother had so often said, "Unearned suffering is redemptive," and Mandela's ascendancy provided a uniquely poignant example.

In 1994, at the request of the U.S. State Department and in cooperation with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, my mother organized a group of civil rights activists to conduct nonviolence education sessions in South Africa and serve as poll-watchers for South Africa's first free elections. More than 300,000 South Africans in both rural and urban areas participated in this unique nonviolence educational program. Her unique role in support of the anti-apartheid movement included both lobbying for sanctions in the U.S. and helping to facilitate the elections that signaled the birth of nonracial democracy in South Africa, without violence.

When Nelson Mandela declared victory in his election as South Africa's first democratically-elected president in Johannesburg, she stood alongside him on stage for that joyful moment of liberation. I was delighted when she joined him in the anti-apartheid movement's dance of liberation. As the Associated Press reported, "In a memorable scene broadcast on national television, (Nelson) Mandela danced across the hotel stage with Coretta Scott King ... The dance was the 'toyi-toyi', a shimmy step that has become an African National Congress trademark..."

When Mandela was inaugurated, she joined him on another dais, and he looked at her and quoted my father, saying 'Free at last; free at last,' a refrain he would repeat when he addressed the U.S. Congress later that year. Clearly, he felt a strong sense of connection to the African American freedom struggle, and the feeling was reciprocated by millions of Americans. I felt great pride that my father and mother had been among the early leaders of America's anti-apartheid movement and tremendous joy at being present for the birth of real democracy in South Africa and the election of this remarkable man, whose years of imprisonment and suffering could not prevent him from calling for brotherhood and sisterhood among South Africans of all races.

Mandela went on to serve his presidency without a trace of bitterness and he worked tirelessly to end the vestiges of racial injustice in his beloved country, while always reaching out to bring South Africans together across racial and political divisions. His refusal to serve a second term underscored his deep concern for the future of South Africa's democracy and solidified his stature as the father of his country.

My father once said that "that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." Like Martin Luther King, Jr., President Mandela understood the interconnectedness of all people, the importance of forgiveness, the value of nonviolence as a means for social change, and the need for unconditional love to save humanity.

In his book, The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela said, "No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." Such words could only come from the lips of a better man and not a bitter man.

A transformational leader who embraced the importance of nonviolence and reconciliation by engaging his adversaries to join with him in unifying a nation, President Mandela left the world with a blueprint for how we can begin building a global community based on peace, love and prosperity. As we mourn the loss of this great humanitarian and statesman throughout the world, let us now honor his legacy by choosing nonviolence as a way of life, and by going beyond the platitudes to emulate his example for living together. Mandela carried the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. forward, when he choose nonviolence -- by loving unconditionally, leading honorably, living selflessly, giving indiscriminately and forgiving completely.

Nelson Mandela, a better man, not a bitter man, made our world better place in which to live. His life and leadership exemplify the highest courage, dignity and dedication to human liberation. His name will always resonate in my heart, as it does in the hearts of millions of people of all races worldwide, as we join in celebrating his magnificent life of service to the cause of freedom, human rights and justice for all humanity.

Bernice A. King is CEO of the King Center and daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.