My day with Mandela
Posted December 5, 2013
Updated December 6, 2013
My first glimpse of Nelson Mandela’s magnetic smile came that Sunday morning in early 1990, watching television coverage of his release from prison in South Africa. It’s still hard to believe that, as he strolled with his wife through crowds of jubilant supporters, free for the first time in decades, I was only weeks away from seeing that smile in person.
Shortly after his release, Mandela agreed to a goodwill tour of the U.S., including a stop in Atlanta. At the time, I was a reporter for The Greenville News in South Carolina, and the editors asked me to head to Atlanta to cover his visit. Many other papers were sending black reporters to cover the event, but I guess they thought a young, white reporter from the Midwest could handle the assignment just as well.
In Atlanta, Mandela was to lay a wreath at Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave, receive an award from King’s widow and address the masses at Georgia Tech’s football stadium. Although the appearance at King’s tomb was the money shot for every photographer, Mandela wasn’t scheduled to speak there. So, I staked out Big Bethel AME Church a few blocks away, where Coretta Scott King was to present Mandela with the first International Freedom Award, which bore her late husband’s name.
The Big Bethel stop was listed in the itinerary as restricted to ticketholders, but I figured media would be allowed in as well. Stupid assumption on my part, as the Secret Service blocked my entry. Of course, not having to stand in the increasingly rowdy line to get inside allowed me to wander around outside the church, and an Associated Press reporter and I quickly discovered another entrance that was left unguarded. We were halfway to the church balcony when a Secret Service agent found we had sneaked inside, and we were immediately detained while he checked our media credentials. Fortunately for us, Mandela was way behind schedule and the people standing in the stifling heat outside were close to rioting, so the agent let the two of us go after seeing that we checked out.
African drummers and dancers feted Mandela’s arrival at the church, and as he sat there for their performance and the various speeches that followed, I couldn’t help but notice from my balcony perch how frail and weary he looked. Bearing the hopes and dreams of a nation – not to mention downtrodden people everywhere – on one’s shoulders has to be exhausting. Yet, the smile that I’d seen months before reappeared as he graciously accepted the award from Mrs. King.
The smile beamed even brighter that evening at Georgia Tech, where he seemed to feed off the energy of more than 50,000 people and electrified the crowd with a speech that linked passages of King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech with his and his fellow black South Africans’ struggle for equality. Reporters are supposed to remain objective, but as I stood with my colleagues in the end zone looking up at him as he spoke from a balcony of the field house, it was one of the most transcendent scenes I can recall.
When I learned of Mandela’s death, I thought back to that frail, old man sitting stiffly in a chair in an Atlanta church. I’m not sure whether it was the strength of his indomitable spirit, the energy he drew from millions of supporters or a combination of the two that carried him another 23 years. Regardless of what it was, we should all smile for the example of human dignity, forgiveness and steadfast convictions that he provided us all these years.