How far has our society changed with regards to race relations? My own barometer for that issue is our perception of Nelson Mandela.
The one-time leader of South Africa whose election as president after decades of incarceration as a radical subversive element to their society died this week – reaching the age of 95.
HE TRULY DID so much with his life at the end that it becomes very easy to forget the nearly 30 years that he spent in prison. In fact, I’m sure there are people who are now desperately trying to rewrite their own memories to erase that incarceration.
Because it is a blot that is uncomfortable to deal with. How could someone so worthy have ever been considered a criminal?
Yet I’m old enough to vividly remember when the only perception of Mandela was that of a criminal. Mandela was often the issue of concern during my college years when people felt the need to protest for social justice -- usually in protests meant to pressure U.S. companies to divest themselves of South African investments.
I remember being at an apartheid protest march (covering it for a college student newspaper) at Illinois State University in Normal when an outside group tried to cut into the event with their chants that Mandela was a “Communist” and otherwise un-American.
I ALSO CAN remember when going to some sort of public event invariably would attract a few people passing out literature while chanting “Free Nelson Mandela!,” whom most people had either never heard of – or were more than willing to believe the official party line that he was a criminal; or perhaps a "terrorist."
Invariably, those people in this country backing Mandela’s release from prison were also selling copies of various Communist Party publications.
I’m not exaggerating on that last point. I remember once in the summer of ’85 being at the University of Illinois-Chicago campus and engaging in an hour-long conversation with a woman peddling The Daily Worker.
OF COURSE, WE were also back in the days of Ronald Reagan as president. Those people who put Bonzo’s one-time co-star in the White House were more than willing to go along with the idea that South Africa should be allowed to decide its own affairs.
If that meant being willing to look the other way when the concept of apartheid (the official policy by which South Africa’s white minority population kept the overwhelming black majority penned into certain, substandard parts of the country) was discussed.
For that was what Mandela and his African National Congress were so opposed to when he was arrested in 1961 for leading a three-day national workers strike. He first got a five-year prison term, then in 1963 was sentenced to life in prison along with other ANC members for allegedly subversive activities.
He ultimately served 27 years in prison, which puts the amount of time that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was detained in assorted jails into proper perspective.
I CAN RECALL the otherwise-sensible people who would dismiss Mandela as a “cause” because of that prison time. Too many people willing to believe that law enforcement authority was automatically correct, even though it wasn’t our system (which has mechanisms in place to catch its errors and correct them, to the best of its ability).
Of course, things changed when Mandela eventually got his release (his continued incarceration became just too much of an embarrassment for the South African government).
It also helped that Mandela, upon release, worked with officials to dismantle the segregationist ways of South Africa – for which he and former President F.W. de Klerk received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Only the most hard-core of ideological nitwits would continue to rant about Mandela after that. Although considering how much they whine about 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama, it’s clear we’re not completely over the old hang-ups – and probably never will be completely!
NOW, I’M NOT nominating Mandela for sainthood. I have no doubt the man has his flaws. All human beings have them (mine are being way too ill-tempered and grouchy at times to be around).
But the fact that we’re no longer hearing “Communist” rants about Mandela – and the fact that his death compelled just about everybody of any significance (I don’t know that I needed to know what Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis thought) to issue a statement expressing their condolences – shows we’ve undergone some sort of shift in thought patterns.
Shifts long overdue, in my own humble opinion.