February 11th marked the 25th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in South Africa. Imprisoned 27 years for speaking out against his country’s minority white rule, he was the “Dr. Martin Luther King” of his day. And like Dr. King, Mandela, a former lawyer, refused to allow injustice to dampen his spirit. Finally released at age 73, he was just getting started, more determined than ever to change the culture that had imprisoned him. Mandela would go on to become South Africa’s first black president 4 years later.
To separate African American history from African history would be nearly impossible. We owe so much of our strength and resilience to our brothers and sisters across the Atlantic. It is this same strength of Mandela that keeps popping up in countless lives of African Americans faced with various forms of injustice.
Whether we’re talking about black folks in America, South America, Africa or Europe, skin color, to some extent, dictates how people are viewed and treated. What Black Americans share with other members of the African Diaspora is the legacy of strength; the unquenchable spirit that refuses to quit.
As we have been painfully reminded over the last two years, black men in particular are walking targets for abuse. The multiple shooting deaths of unarmed black men, along with countless others who are behind bars for the least of crimes, speaks to the desperate need for more heroes and role models.
We need heroes willing to fight injustice, not just react to it. Mandela decided he would change the corrupt Apartheid system even before his release. Speaking to the crowds in his hometown of Soweto, he raised his clenched fist, signaling his determination to end the system of racial discrimination. It was a turning point in South Africa’s history.
In America, as in Africa and other places, the heavy weight of racism can wear us down. It takes faith, courage and vision to keep going when you keep getting knocked down. What made Mandela and King different was their commitment not only to change the system, but to bring people of all races together, without violence. It’s easy to fight back against those who fight you. It takes real strength to keep offering the olive branch.
We need more people like Nelson Mandela as role models, no matter where in the world we live. And there is no better time than Black History Month to practice tolerance and nonviolence. Inner strength, self-control, commitment and courage—these are qualities that have served African descendants over the centuries. It is what has helped them to survive slavery, discrimination, injustice, police beatings and just about every inhumane experience imaginable.
Black History Month would be incomplete without acknowledging struggles and injustice. At the same time, the legacy of strength and personal determination is one in which African Americans can be proud, and one that can inspire everyone regardless of race.