Commentary: Nelson Mandela’s Death Brings Muhammad Ali to Our Minds

Courageous public figures share a bond that people should remember for generations to come.

Posted: 12/09/2013 11:47 AM EST

Perhaps you’ve seen the color photograph. Plastered on people’s Facebook pages and used elsewhere the past couple of days, the photograph shows the late Nelson Mandela in an embrace with Muhammad Ali.

It is a photograph taken we can’t say how many years ago, but we know it isn’t of a recent vintage, for in the photograph Ali stands tall, his hair thick and black, and his eyes full of expression, so unlike Ali’s eyes of the past couple of years. Eyes that, if they expressed anything, it is death.

We all will die at some point. We know that fact as well as we know our names and our ages. But when we do go meet our Maker, we must hope we can leave behind a legacy that is at least within the same galaxy, if not necessarily in the same zip code, as the one Mandela left last Thursday or the one the ailing Ali will surely leave us soon.

But we move through life too complacent to fret about a legacy. We think it takes first confronting death or seeing icons from our yesteryears fall like dominoes – one tile at a time – to do so; and Mandela, 95, was one of those icons.

We did not expect Mandela to live into his mid-90s. We had thought the 27 years he spent in a South African prison, guilty of nothing except trying to free his people from apartheid, would shorten his life. We believed Mandela would be lucky to live into his late 70s after the real-life nightmare hatred forced him to endure.

We were wrong.

For the world had Nelson Mandela, a defiant and outspoken descendant of Thembu tribal royalty, for more than three decades. The world had him on its most public stage, fighting against racial injustice in his homeland and anywhere else that men, women and children faced oppression for just being themselves.

The price of people’s being themselves has become costlier and costlier each decade; injustice has been almost like a pandemic. Our world remains a place that produces too much hate – hatred that turned Mandela and Ali into kinsmen.

In the face of such hatred, both men triumphed. Neither of them let hate drive him into the shadows. They become Black faces of the worlds – Black men whose careers in the spotlight brought them audiences with white kings and white queens, white presidents and white premiers, white giants of industry and ordinary Black men and Black women on the assembly lines. Neither Mandela nor Ali cashed in his celebrity for all the riches it could have brought him.

Not that either man lived like Mahatma Gandhi; they didn’t have to. They were and are, in Ali’s case, global treasures, and doesn’t the world protect its treasures?

One day soon – too soon, of course -- we will awake to the sobering news that we have lost the great Muhammad Ali to death, and as we shed our tears over his passing, we will think back to Ali’s struggles with America’s injustice, think back to the photograph of the magnificent Ali and the stately Mandela, alive and vibrant, in an embrace.

We will mourn the loss, but we will remind ourselves how much better off we are as people that God had blessed us with both men for as long as He did. 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photos from Left: Gareth Davies/Getty Images, Ross D. Franklin/AP photo/File)

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