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Nelson Mandela stirred Los Angeles in 1990 visit

Shortly after his release from prison, Mandela brought his rallying cry of hope and change to Los Angeles with a speech at City Hall.

December 06, 2013|By Thomas Curwen
  • Mourners gather outside Nelson Mandela's home in suburban Johannesburg, South Africa, where he died Thursday.
Mourners gather outside Nelson Mandela's home in suburban Johannesburg,… (Kim Ludbrook / European…)

In the summer of 1990, Nelson Mandela stood on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, eager to greet a city that had joined the worldwide celebration accompanying his release from prison.

Shouting his name and the Zulu word for power, amandla, the crowd embraced the man who had so quickly become a hero. In New York, he had been showered in ticker tape. In Atlanta, he placed a wreath on the tomb of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and in Washington, he spoke to Congress about the meaning of his long exile.

"We went to jail," he said, "because it was impossible to sit still while the obscenity of the apartheid system was being imposed on our people. It would have been immoral to keep quiet while a racist tyranny sought to reduce an entire people into a status worse than that of the beasts of the forest."

By the time he reached Los Angeles, having visited six other cities on his American tour, Mandela — a few weeks shy of his 72nd birthday — was exhausted but unwilling to disappoint. Flanked by politicians and celebrities, he looked over the packed lawn on 1st Street and listened to the encomiums of the other speakers.

Gregory Peck introduced him as "the man who's awakened the conscience of America," and the mayor, Tom Bradley, compared him to the Rev. King and Robert Kennedy.

"The people of Los Angeles are honored to stand with you, Mr. Mandela," Bradley said. "We cannot possibly understand the depth of the evil you are fighting, or the measures you are taking to protect your children from starvation and torture. But we do understand your place in history. It is a rare place, reserved for the remarkable few who have unshackled whole peoples from the yoke of oppression."

Stepping to the lectern, shaded from the sun by a black umbrella, Mandela drew cheers when he addressed the gathering as "brothers and sisters" and spoke about the city's power to inspire. But it was his story that inspired most.

"For us in our youth, Hollywood was the stuff of dreams," he said. "Our youthful dreams are to some extent being realized."

For its modest beginnings, Mandela's life had the makings of myth. He grew up in a village of mud huts, briefly studied law, ran away from an arranged marriage and worked as a night watchman for a gold mine.

He joined the African National Congress in 1943, and five years later, the state began its clampdown on the rights of blacks and other nonwhites.

Charged in 1962 with sabotage and the intent to overthrow the government, he stood in court on the first day of his trial dressed in a leopard-skin cloak. His 27 years in prison — mostly confined to a scrap of dry land known as Robben Island — were reminiscent of King's incarceration in the Birmingham, Ala., jail.

At City Hall on that hot afternoon in 1990, one woman spoke to the excitement of the moment, years before the rallying cry of hope and change would become commonplace in this country.

"Nothing's going to stop me from getting a snapshot of him — not even the FBI," she said. "I'm gonna blow it up, put it in a frame and hang it in my living room — right next to my world map and picture of Martin Luther King Jr."

After speaking at City Hall, Mandela met with human rights activist Natan Sharansky, who had been jailed in the Soviet Union. He attended a reception at the Exposition Park Armory and then proceeded to the Coliseum.

That afternoon, hundreds of youths, carrying banners and chanting, walked four miles from the Crenshaw district. Before Mandela took the stage, gospel and folk singers, along with rappers Tone Loc and Ice-T, entertained the crowd of nearly 70,000.

Few knew about Mandela's politics, but it didn't matter. Some acts of courage require little explanation. In Poland, a shipyard electrician had taken on the Communist Party and helped set into motion the fall of the Iron Curtain. In China, a solitary figure stood before a column of tanks during the tragic massacre at Tiananmen Square.

Commentators tried to explain Mandela's popularity. Some argued that he was more hero than celebrity. Others placed him on the right side of the struggle between good and evil.

Never mind that he had come to America to raise money for his political party, that he refused to renounce violence if necessary and that he called Yasser Arafat, Moammar Kadafi and Fidel Castro "comrades in arms" for their support of his cause.

He knew that reform was hardly assured. South Africa's struggle had been slow to break upon the consciousness of the world, but the 1976 Soweto riots that left nearly 600 dead called for action.

During the years of divestment and boycott, the characters of this drama strutted across the stage with increasing familiarity: John Vorster and P.W. Botha, despised defenders of apartheid; Steve Biko, young martyr for Black Consciousness; Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a reconciler; and Mandela himself, whose silence even from prison proved so eloquent.

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