Congress Celebrates Nelson Mandela's 95th Birthday

Lawmakers paid tribute to the South African leader's life, legacy and values.

Posted: 07/18/2013 05:34 PM EDT

For the second time in about a month, congressional leaders put aside their partisan differences to honor the life and legacy of a leader of African descent. Today the occasion was the 95th birthday of former South African President Nelson Mandela, a milestone that is being celebrated around the world.

The event, organized by the Congressional Black Caucus, began and ended with a performance by the KanKouran West African Dance Company, which danced and drummed its way into the Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall. The audience included lawmakers, civil rights leaders, members of the African Diplomatic Corps and individuals from all walks of life who wanted to honor the South African leader.

"At times it can almost feel like we are talking about an old friend," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "And the reason for that I think is scarcely a week, a day goes by without us pointing to Mandela as an example."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) called him the "George Washington and Abraham Lincoln of South Africa."

Several Democratic and Republican lawmakers read passages from speeches Mandela delivered at key moments in his life, including his release from prison, accepting a Nobel Peace Prize and, of course, his presidential inauguration.

During Mandela's imprisonment, Rep. Maxine Waters, then a member of the California General Assembly, led anti-apartheid marches, rallies and sit-ins at the South African consular office in Los Angeles and a movement to divest state pension funds from South African companies. She with many others also got arrested while protesting in front of the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. In 1994, as part of the official U.S. delegation, Waters traveled to South Africa to witness his historic presidential swearing in ceremony.

At the Capitol ceremony, Waters spoke movingly about Mandela's legacy of sacrifice and leadership, calling him "the most significant historic figure in the world in the past 100 years."

"President Mandela taught the world invaluable lessons about determination, leadership and unity. I regard [him] as a personal hero, and I am among the many that have been profoundly moved by both him and the people of South Africa," she later said in a statement.

The celebration ended with the audience singing Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday," composed to promote making a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

Ebrahim Rasool, South African ambassador to the United States, also spoke of Mandela's enduring legacy and the ailing leader's refusal "to pass simply out of human existence."

“All over the world, people need his values. They need his legacy,” Rasool said. “Not as a museum piece, but as something real and living that we can use in our everyday lives.”

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(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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