Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

December 6, 2013

Grace in human form

Glasgow Daily Times

GLASGOW — I don’t believe in the idea of idolizing humans. I don’t believe they should be given too much credit for success of the world or too much blame for the failures. Nelson Mandela is the exception.

I had the fortune of being born two months before public school integration in Mississippi. I had parents who had no problem with desegregated schools and never considered sending me to one of the all-white private schools that popped up statewide like wild mushrooms in January of 1971.

Mandela was in prison when I was born. He was in prison in South Africa when I started primary school. He was in prison at Robben Island when I entered junior high and still in prison when I graduated high school.

“I can only say that I felt morally obliged to do what I did.” (At the opening of his trial, April 20, 1964)

Mandela spent 27 years in prison before being released in 1990. He was initially charged with leaving South Africa illegally and, while in prison, a treason charge was tacked on. Mandela was a leader in the African National Congress, which opposed apartheid in South Africa. The ANC opposed the oppressive laws used to oppress black Africans initially through political operations and later through military operations. Both in his native country and in other countries, including the United States, Mandela was considered a terrorist leading a terrorist organization.

“Difficulties break some men but make others.” (From a letter to wife, Winnie Mandela, from Robben Island, February 1975)

In the 1980s, international pressure grew to have Mandela released. Sanctions had been leveled on South Africa beginning in the late 1960s and continued to be tightened through the ‘80s. In December 1988, a concert that included many pop stars of the day was had outside London in honor of Mandela’s 70th birthday. More than 600 million people worldwide, including the U.S., were able to watch most of the concert. (Facts listed above come from a number of sources, including PBS pages/frontline/shows/mandela/etc/cron.html). The concert brought to light the plight of the man imprisoned in South Africa and put it before many who had no clue who he was, like myself.

Mandela was not a perfect man. There is no such thing. He did work to be the best man he could be and he pushed with grace to change what could only be described as a crime against humanity perpetrated by the government of South Africa.

“Difficulties break some men but make others.” (From a letter to wife, Winnie Mandela, from Robben Island, February 1975)

When released from prison in 1990, he embraced those who had treated him as a terrorist and had subjected him, for much of his time in lock up, to torture. He had watched from his cell as his people were killed when they tried to fight the oppressive regime, but found the ability to forgive the killers and the regime the represented when he returned to freedom.

“I came to accept that I have no right whatsoever to judge others in terms of my own customs.” (From his unpublished autobiographical manuscript, 1975)

Despite the trials to which he had been subjected, Mandela left prison more focused on a peaceful transition in power from the white-controlled South African government to one that was multi-racial in make up  — one that would end apartheid.

“Great anger and violence can never build a nation. We are striving to proceed in a manner and towards a result, which will ensure that all our people, both black and white, emerge as victors.” (Speech to European Parliament, 1990)

In 1992, while at college in Wales, I met a young white woman from South Africa. She was conflicted about her nation, having come from a middle class family, she could see the change coming to the political structure. She was concerned about what she knew would be an eventual change in power. She said there was a moral clarity for her. Her nation was corrupt and had committed significant crimes against its black citizens. She was certain the transition would go smoothly as long as Mandela was the driving force behind it. She had faith in a person she had been raised to consider a terrorist.

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” (From Long Walk to Freedom, 1995)


The quotes within this column are courtesy of They summarize Nelson Mandela, but I believe that people at all levels of our society would do well to examine his life, the difficulties he overcame, but especially the grace with which he affected change in his nation.

James Brown is editor of the Glasgow Daily Times. He can be contacted by e-mail at jbrown@glasgowdailytimes .com.