BOSTON — The Old North Church bell tolled a welcome for Nelson Mandela in the birthplace of the American revolution Saturday as more than a quarter of a million whites and blacks turned out to cheer the black liberation leader whom Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) hailed as "the statesman of our time."
Mandela's limousine, in a thick sandwich of security, sped through racially troubled Boston--from a high school rally to a lunch with Sen. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and 400 guests and, finally, to a mass rally on the tree-lined Esplanade on the banks of the Charles River.
Mandela praised the Kennedy family for their commitment over the years to the anti-apartheid cause, saying that their long support for Mandela and the African National Congress "was not just words but . . . was backed up through action."
The riverside rally in the posh Back Bay neighborhood, the highlight of Mandela's 2-day stop in Boston, drew a predominantly white crowd, creating a mood of racial harmony rarely associated with this city and suggesting that support for the 71-year-old leader in the United States transcends racial lines.
"There's a pulse beat of unity here today," said Betty Saef, a 50-year-old suburban white housewife who brought her daughter to the rally. "I really feel good. This will be beneficial to society."
Others, though, were not so sure.
"Many of these white people will go home and feel good but they'll forget about it in a week or so," said Annette Walker, 32, a black nursing home worker who came to the rally with her husband and 3-year-old son.
A crowd police estimated at 260,000 turned out on a mild, overcast day in the narrow park for an afternoon with Mandela and an array of music, performed by Jackson Browne, Bobby McFerrin, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and dozens of others.
Mandela admirers arrived on foot and by car, bus, train, bike, boat and even inner tube. Families spread out blankets and set up lawn chairs on the grass for picnics, while giant screens brought the speech closer. Hawkers sold T-shirts bearing such slogans as "Boston Welcomes Mandela" and "Sanctions Until Democracy."
Chuck Digate and three friends were sitting on the deck behind their 19th-Century brownstone overlooking the Esplanade, sipping cocktails, munching chips and dip and watching a color TV perched on the ledge.
"It's a lot of fun but also it's extremely important," Digate said.
Louise Richardson, an assistant professor at Harvard University, brought her 1-year-old daughter, Ciara.
"I wanted this to be the first political meeting my daughter attended," the white 33-year-old said.
Standing within a few miles of the sites of the first skirmishes of the Revolutionary War, Mandela recalled Boston's role in the American independence movement and praised Crispus Attucks, a black man who was the first person killed in that war.
Mandela also praised Massachusetts for being the first state to institute sanctions, in 1977, against South Africa, calling it "the conscience of American society."
"Together, we have turned the wheel of history in favor of . . . liberty," Mandela said, beads of perspiration appearing on his face at the end of the long day. "When one day our history is rewritten, the pioneering role of Massachusetts will stand out like a shining diamond."
But the most emotional moments Saturday came at the John F. Kennedy Library, where the Kennedy family had invited a glittering list of anti-apartheid figures, including singers Simon and Wonder.
The Kennedys presented the Mandelas with a bust of President Kennedy and the original draft of a speech Sen. Robert F. Kennedy gave in South Africa 24 years ago. Mandela, flanked by Sen. Kennedy and Onassis, smiled broadly as Wonder performed a ballad he wrote for Mandela on the day of his release from prison. Wonder said he would donate proceeds from the song, "Keep Our Love Alive."
The Kennedy family's association with South African causes goes back at least to 1963, when President Kennedy implemented the first U.S. sanctions against Pretoria, prohibiting arms sales.
In 1966, Robert Kennedy was one of the first Westerners to denounce apartheid from South African soil. Edward Kennedy has been a leader in passing anti-apartheid legislation, and several years ago visited Winnie Mandela in the rural Orange Free State town to which the government had banished her.
Mandela spoke of those days in his speech, recalling "the sense of tragic loss that all of us in prison felt the day he (President Kennedy) was assassinated."
"The Kennedys are well-known in our country, and my family feels a close affinity with them," he said.
Edward Kennedy vowed to continue his support for Mandela's African National Congress, saying "your fight against apartheid is our fight." And he said the luncheon was "the greatest gathering of civil rights leaders since Nelson Mandela ate alone."
Thanking Kennedy for his accolades, Mandela said: "I consider myself an honorary Irishman from Soweto."