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DOLAN: A Mandela remembrance
Question of the Day
Editor’s note: Christine Dolan served as the Spokesperson for the 1990 USA Nelson Mandela Tour when Nelson Mandela came to America after having spent 27 years in a South African prison for his opposition to his country’s racial discrimination laws. She recounts his multi-city U.S. tour.
Some called him Tata (“Father”). Others affectionately called him by his clan name,Madiba. The world knew him as Nelson Mandela. It was June 1990 when this force of nature, this dignified man, came to America months after being released from RobbensIsland.
Momentum was building for his tour of New York, Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Detroit, Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif.Everyone wanted to see him, interview him, dine with him, shake his hand and hug him. He was bigger than life because he stood for something, and sacrificed his life for his principles. Apartheid was morally wrong. Mandela knew it, and he and his comrades stood up against it.
In New York, he unexpectedly decided to don a Yankees jacket and stroll out of Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s home. Security did not know what to do. The walkie-talkies were buzzing, “What do we do?” “We do nothing. Let this man stroll the streets of New York.” No one was going to stop this man who walked with the wings of freedom.
He was supposed to meet with a group of black radio and television stations owners in New York, but that appointment did not happen there. We re-scheduled them to Washington.
In Boston, the Kennedy camp took control of events at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Chaos ensued because we did not plan down-time at the hotel upon the arrival of his wife, Winnie. She was upset and decided to take the entourage and caravan of sedans to the hotel.
News anchor Ted Koppel interviewed Mandela, and he refused to renounce his “comrades” — PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Libyan strongmanMoammar Gadhafi and Cuban President Fidel Castro. Mr. Koppel was so stunned that Mandela remarked, “Cat’s got your tongue,” and smiled that sheepish grin of his.
Civil rights leader Roger Wilkins, who was the driving force behind the Mandela tour, called me and said, “I think we have a problem.” I assured him this was no problem. Americans were just ignorant about Africa. Gadhafi, Castro and Arafat were with Mandela and his African National Congress long before American celebrities like Harry Belafonte voiced their opinions against apartheid. Mandela represented the best of Africa in his loyalty to those who stood with him before it was fashionable to stand up against the white oppression of the black majority in South Africa.
In Washington, Rep. Ron Dellums escorted Mandela into a joint session of Congress, where Mandela remarkably explained the price of freedom. The adulation was overwhelming. Mandela was a man whose determination set history in motion, and there he stood humbly on the pillar of truth as a witness.
Behind the scenes, there were those who wanted more time at each stop. CNN and NBC were spending a fortune hoping that anchors Bernie Shaw and Bryant Gumbelwould get a chance to interview him. But Mandela wanted none of it. He decided no more interviews.
When we explained to him that the group of black broadcasters that had gone to New York was now in Washington, I put my foot down. He had to meet with this group even if he did not meet with another member of the press. Mandela enabled us to keep our word to them. He met with them.
Fists were raised at the White House in the name of amandla — the Zulu word for power — and the next day in Atlanta, Mandela placed a wreath on Martin Luther King’s grave.
The press plane, which Donald Trump leased to the tour, now was heading west, and news broke that the Oakland stop was cancelled because the South African entourage had to leave for Ireland. I called Irish Labor Party leader John Hume and asked him if this wasan official visit. There was no way I was going to call Ron Dellums, as Roger Wilkins had asked me, to tell him Mandela was skippingDellums’ hometown and heading to Ireland. Hume reassured me that it was not a state visit. We stayed to the schedule in Oakland,then scrabbled to find private planes to flyMandela and his South African entourage to Ireland afterward.
In Los Angeles, the Hollywood Women’s Political Caucus was planning a luncheon for Winnie, and Mayor Tom Bradley’s staff was feverishly planning public events, while Hollywood celebrities from Lionel Ritchie to Gregory Peck wanted their chance to share the spotlight with the man of the hour.
What I witnessed and sensed then – Mandela was a living reminder of courage, audacity, authenticity. He was real. His narrative was not concocted. He stood up against something we all knew was wrong. He lived a life that met another man’s history. It goes without saying that had not South African President F.W. De Klerk experienced a profound change of heart, had not Winnie Mandela been his voice across the world as Mandela sat in his cell, and had not Mandela made the conscious decision to leave hatred behind in the prison walls, his mission would not have been accomplished.
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