A great man lies dying and it seems impossible to go about my day without thinking about what he lived through—how in this world he managed it—and where we are today.
I look about my room and wonder how I’d deal with it if someone said, “you may not leave this room for one year.” Suppose that someone said, “for the rest of your life.” Suppose it was not my room, but a tiny prison cell. Nelson Mandela was 44 years old when his life sentence was handed down. The year was 1962. Thirty-two years later, he was the president of his country.
In 1962, I was toddling through the Apartheid South, better known as the Jim Crow South. Separate (and not equal) schools, parks, bathroom facilities, building entrances, theater and buss seats. No admittance to most restaurants and motels. The Civil Rights Act was two violent years from presidential signature.
In 2008, my family and I stood in the VCU basketball arena in Richmond, Virginia, where Governor Tim Kaine introduced musician Dave Mathews, who was playing a free concert for volunteers trying to elect presidential candidate Barack Obama.
To be clear, that’s a white governor in a former Massive Resistance state, introducing a white man from South African who was working to elect the first black president of the United States of America. Yes we can.
Here we are in 2013, fifty years after the death of Medgar Evers. Shot dead for working to end racism. Fifty-eight years after a weary Rosa Parks declined to move to the back of the bus, the same year that 14-year old Emmett Till was beaten to death for looking at a white woman in a way that displeased her.
Last week, the US Supreme Court repealed portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—the part that requires the most racist states in the union to obtain federal approval before changing their voting requirements—once again putting, as columnist Paula B. Mays wrote, “the rock in the hands of Goliath.” No fewer than five southern states are now proceeding with changes to their voter identification requirements.
Here in the land of the free where we celebrate our own independence this week, we would do well to remember a quote by President Mandela: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”