Mandela: Speaking truth to power

The author commemorates a global icon whose legacy stretches as far as the US.

Nelson Mandela inspired many Americans fighting for racial and social justice [EPA]
Nelson Mandela inspired many Americans fighting for racial and social justice [EPA]

Michigan and Trumbull. Perhaps this is Detroit’s most storied intersection which reveals, both in the past and the present, the city’s stark racial segregation. The corner was the site of the most violent episodes of the 1967 race rebellions, and today testifies to the savage inequalities that still separate “black” from “white” in Detroit.

Michigan and Trumbull is also where Tiger Stadium once stood, which on June 28, 1990 was where Nelson Mandela delivered words that spoke directly to the wounds of black and downtrodden Detroiters. Mandela quoted Motown’s very own Marvin Gaye, speaking the language of Detroiters to liken the South African condition with the aspirations for equality stateside: “For how long must our brothers and sisters go on dying?”

These were Gaye’s lyrics and a call for action Mandela dedicated his life to making moot.  It was a call that resonated far beyond the borders of South Africa and was heard well beyond the racially ravaged corner of Michigan and Trumbull.

It was this message of a non-negotiable racial equality that captured the imagination of the 49,000 Detroiters in Tiger Stadium that summer evening in 1990. Yet, perhaps more salient than this message, was Mandela’s embodiment of dignity and transcendence that challenged still entrenched notions of racial inferiority inscribed on black and brown bodies.

Mandela shares his wisdom with the young

As a twelve-year old, I watched “Madiba” on the television set knowing very little about the 46-year reign of apartheid, or the 27-year jail sentence imposed on Mandela for seeking to bring the regime to an end. Iconic Detroit Mayor Coleman Young was side by side with Mandela’s, and at first, I was unsure which salt and peppered haired Black man was Madiba.

The unrestrained admiration, tears, and attention of the crowd singled Mandela out. He stood tall in a city of civil rights giants and luminaries, including Rosa Parks and Damon Keith, who looked upon him with identical esteem.

Mandela then closed with a message that, at first, seemed juxtaposed with his exacting, 20-minute political speech: “I respect you. I admire you. And above all, I love you.”

The absence of these core human tenets is what made apartheid thrive, Jim Crow possible, and de facto racial segregation an ongoing reality throughout the United States. Mandela, in June 1990, before and after, reminded us of the very basic yet neglected foundation racial equality must be built upon.

He delivered this message at every stop of his eight-city American tour in 1990, mobilising millions of Americans to carry forward the spirit of his struggle to bring about racial equity. The magic of Mandela was his ability to speak directly to the African American condition, but package it in universal terms that made it an intimate and appealing message for all.

Americans stigmatised along lines of race, religion, poverty, sexual orientation, gender, or a series of these factors yearned for the dignity Mandela demanded. Moreover, his everyman approach coupled with the global framing of his message made individuals – regardless of their identity – feel as if Mandela was speaking directly to them.

This is what made Mandela’s message timeless and transcendent. Even after his death, Mandela will continue to serve as an everlasting symbol of triumph for ongoing social and racial justice movements.

Indeed, the onslaught against affirmative action and race-conscious programmes in education is daunting. The large scale shuttering of inner-city public schools largely serving black and brown populations erodes the promise of integration made in by Brown v. Board of Education ; and a student body comprised of only 3.3 percent black males at UCLA – a flagship public university – evidences an educational apartheid that, no matter the odds, must be toppled.

The range of racial inequities that thrive within our cities and streets, college campuses and corporations, laws and government agencies immortalise Mandela’s message. His defiance of unjust laws and perseverance to struggle forward until apartheid could no longer withstand the might of morality provide indisputable evidence that even the most oppressive regimes are not invincible.

Although his body was pronounced dead on December 5, his spirit of speaking truth to power, and his advocacy of racial equality, love and reconciliation will breathe life into the struggles of today and tomorrow.

Twenty-six years after Mandela’s speech at Tiger Stadium, I delivered a speech in defence of affirmative action at Wayne State University – two miles away from the storied Michigan and Trumbull corner. An undergraduate approached me after the talk, and asked: “Why did they get an Arab to do your job, does affirmative action even effect Arab Americans? Couldn’t they find a black lawyer? After all, it is a black issue.”

I paused, transported myself to the moment in 1990 when I first saw Mandela speak, and echoed his words: “Fighting racial injustice is a human issue,” and subsequently counted one more supporter for our campaign in defence of racial equality.

Khaled A Beydoun is the Critical Race Studies Teaching Fellow at the UCLA School of Law.

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