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May 29, 2024

Tom Bradley defeats incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty and becomes the first Black mayor of Los Angeles on this date in 1973.

When our Heroes Die

POSTED: December 17, 2013, 8:30 am

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Nelson Mandela, the beloved Tata Madiba to his homeland, has been buried after an emotional week in South Africa and abroad. Though his death had been anticipated for some time, the finality of this warrior’s passing left South Africans struggling with mixed emotions. Tears flowed with the reality that this man who symbolized the fight against apartheid had succumbed to illness and old age, and the appreciation for his courage and commitment overwhelmed many. Still, there was dancing and song celebrating Mandela for a life committed to freeing his country from the ravages of white supremacy and doing so at great personal cost and with tremendous dignity. When heroes die we are all confronted with the meaning of their lives in relation to our own.

For African-Americans, the closest approximation in modern times to the passing of Mandela is the deaths of Malcolm X and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The deaths of Malcolm and Martin came as a shock but not necessarily a surprise. It was the suddenness of those assassinations that set us back; that two men who were fighting for the same cause but taking different paths could be killed in such fashion was traumatizing. Still, in truth, neither King nor Malcolm X represents true analogs to the legacy of Nelson Mandela despite the similarities of the civil rights and Black liberation movements to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

The three decades imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, and the jailing of many of his African National Congress comrades and the exile of many others, serves as a powerful testament to their strength, character and determination to endure suffering for the greater good. There were few people outside South Africa in 1964 at the time of Mandela’s sentencing who believed that he would one day be freed and the ANC would gain political control of the country. While Black civil rights leaders in America were periodically jailed, perhaps most notably Dr. King’s imprisonment in a Birmingham Alabama cell, the wholesale assault on the ANC and the Black Consciousness Movement led by Steve Biko, should have been sufficient to permanently extinguish the freedom movement in South Africa. It was not and the memory of the strength of the movement, personified in Mandela, is what has caused tears to flow over the last week and for many to appropriately reflect on their own commitment, sense of purpose in a world where injustice flows like a mighty river.

In Mandela’s passing many people are lamenting the death of a movement. The triumph of Mandela and the ANC is one of those rare moments we witness in our time on this earth; when good overcomes evil and the will of the people prevails. The anti-apartheid movement became a global phenomenon, allowing people throughout the world to lend their voice for the cause of freedom. It allowed a generation of youth in America who did not experience the civil rights movement to identify with the struggle of Black South Africans and champion the anti-apartheid fight in the United States. For Blacks in America, Mandela’s life story recalled a moment when Africa-Americans were making forward progress and struggle was accepted as the price paid for freedom. Struggle in the moment is rarely accepted but in hindsight it is seen as empowering and redemptive.

Now that Nelson Mandela has died it should prompt many of us to do some soul searching, those in his native land and those of us who claim to want freedom in the United States. It is one thing to speak of freedom and quite another to lay down one’s life for the cause. Rather than make Mandela an idol in death, as we have done with both Malcolm and Martin, we should use him as an example, a template upon which to focus our struggle against injustice and tyranny. That so many adored him and are affected by his death is understandable but we run the risk of casting not only his likeness in bronze but the legacy of the movement as well if we are not careful. His life and death should be motivation for each of us to contemplate what we are doing on a daily basis for the cause of freedom. While our lives might not reach the mythic status of Mandela, we must remind ourselves of the tens of thousands of acts of courage by ordinary South Africans against apartheid. The triumph of Mandela was the victory of the masses and the work of the many.

One of the things I recall most during my time in South Africa right after apartheid fell and I was working with the ANC to help train Blacks who would manage the nation’s cities was the personification of the larger struggle in the people. It was a true movement and individuals were invested in their own liberation at the grassroots. I sensed that people understood their individual stake in the quest for freedom and viewed themselves not so much as followers of Mandela but comrades in the transformation of their country.

It is that personification of the cause that seems to be missing in the United States. We want freedom so long as someone else fights for it. It is one of the reasons we have no sense of collective action against the litany of injustices that occur daily against African-Americans. It was not always so; one of the hallmarks of the civil rights movement was the thousands of individual acts, like in South Africa, that buttressed King and the leadership cadre of that day. It was as close to a mass movement as we have had in America since the abolitionist period. Since the death of Dr. King we have lost the sense of true personal responsibility; that is, the responsibility to fight injustice where we stand, whether it is in our neighborhoods, in the halls of government, in our schools, in the workplace and even in our churches.

A true tribute to Nelson Mandela and the legacy of the anti-apartheid movement would be to rekindle his revolutionary spirit in the United States and once again commit as individuals to the fight for freedom. Movements are not impersonal. They are the result of individual will that evolves into collective action. Our individual commitment to the cause of the oppressed would be the greatest honor we could bestow upon this man who taught the world that an individual can choose to live free even when imprisoned.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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