Our friend John Taylor shared this remembrance of Nelson Mandela. John is the CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition in Washington DC. He is an effective advocate for social justice and fair lending practices.
I would be remiss not to share with you a brief story of when I met Nelson Mandela. It was six months after he was released from prison. As many of you know the Kennedys, particularly Robert, were very engaged in speaking out against apartheid in South Africa.
Robert Kennedy went to visit Mr. Mandela while in prison and upon leaving South Africa had his plane fly low over Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned. Back home the Kennedys were very vocal in calling for a free South Africa, supporting Rep. Ron Dellums (D-CA) and others who passed legislation in 1986 (it actually had bipartisan support) imposing economic, military another sanctions against the nationalist South African government. Of course that legislation was vetoed by Ronald Reagan. Fortunately, Republicans and Democrats in the Congress came together and procured the needed votes to override the veto.
In any case, when Mandela came to the U.S. after finally getting out of prison, his first stop in our country was to Boston to thank the Kennedys and the City of Boston (the first U.S. city to take a stand against apartheid by imposing sanctions on companies and banks that conducted business with the South African government).
Robert’s son, Rep. Joe Kennedy II (D-MA), invited me and one other person, to a small gathering of people who would be meeting Mr. Mandela at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston, not too far from where I grew up in Boston. What an honor.
Of the 50 or so people there, it seemed that everyone was a celebrity, I was half expecting someone to ask for my ID and then be escorted out of the building. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and as we stood around waiting for Mr. Mandela’s arrival I was having one-on-one conversations with people like Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Danny Glover and several others.
My congressman, and friend, Joe Kennedy II then introduced me to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. He said, “John have you met Mrs. Onassis?” I replied I had not; she smiled and began to talk, when behind her a door opened and out walked Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela and Senator Ted Kennedy to the thunderous applause of the gathered celebrities. Like a starstruck fan at a rock concert, I immediately moved towards the star of the show to give him my best and thanks. To this day I regret not being able to show Mrs. Onassis more deference and to talk with her – what an incredible human being she was.
Mr. Mandela did not disappoint. He spoke of his appreciation for those who stood up against apartheid, and along with his message he exuded a warmth, graciousness and deep humility that touched me like no one before. It struck me then, what kind of human being spends 27 years in prison and rises from it with such gentleness and forgiveness as this special man possessed.
I would love to say how much of his intimate speech I remembered, but it was a bit of a blur at this point. The man, his love for mankind, for South Africa, for all things ‘justice,’ just floated out over the audience like a misty and intoxicating perfume. What an honor to have met this very special being.
I am eternally grateful to Joe Kennedy for including me in this special event . As I left the John F Kennedy Library I do remember how peaceful the ride was in my little red Volkswagen bug as I reflected on my own life and work in the field of economic justice.
How trivial my challenges seemed but at the same time how critically important the work we were doing locally in economic justice was. I was inspired by this slight man from a rural area at the very bottom of this vast continent of Africa.
He showed me that we can endure a great deal, but at the end of the day, the goodness and righteousness of people will prevail. Like others, I mourn the loss of President Mandela, but at the same time I join billions of people who now celebrate his greatness and commitment to a better society and kinder world. We are all blessed to have known him, better off as human beings because of his love for mankind, and this is as true whether we witnessed him from afar or up close and personal.
President and CEO, National Community Reinvestment Coalition/NCRC