Civil Rights Leaders Recall the Lasting Inspiration of Nelson Mandela

The South African leader's fight became theirs, they say.

Posted: 12/05/2013 08:10 PM EST

South African President Nelson Mandela, who died on Dec. 5 at age 95, was for decades a real-life super hero to many of today's civil rights leaders in the United States. The juxtaposition of Black South Africans' battle against apartheid and Black Americans' fight for civil rights lit a fire under them; countless African-American political and civil rights leaders today cite their introduction to Mandela's courage and sacrifice as a defining moment in their lives.

"Nelson Mandela emerged as the cauldron for our fire and our greatest hope that we could all one day be free from oppression," Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Thursday night in a statement mourning the loss of Mandela. "We poured our hearts, our hopes and our ambitions for freedom into organizing, educating, fundraising and pursuing international pressure in support of his people's just cause. Mandela's struggle, along with that of his countrymen, became ours."

Henderson noted the irony of how Mandela often said that the American civil rights movement inspired him, but it was "Mandela's fearless advocacy for peace in the face of prison, death and torture that would inspire us."

Indeed, said Marc Morial, president of the National urban League, Mandela "gave new meaning to the word inspiration."

As a Georgetown University law student, Morial helped lead a boycott of the institution's cafeteria operator because it held investments in South Africa, and pushed for other U.S. companies to divest in the nation. He also experienced what many Americans who fought apartheid consider a rite of passage of the time being arrested during a protest at the South African Embassy.

"When the U.S. Congress ultimately passed sanctions against South Africa, I could only hope that Nelson Mandela knew that his army now extended beyond the borders of South Africa to subsequent generations of freedom activists and advocates around the world even the world's greatest democracy helping to continue the work that he started."

Morial pointed out another irony in the legacy of Nelson Mandela. His parents gave him the middle name Rolihlahla, which means "troublemaker," yet he grew up to be "an international symbol of peacemaking."

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(Photo: Jonathan C. Katzenellenbogen/Getty Images)

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