'He pulled off the impossible': Local residents remember Mandela

News-DemocratDecember 7, 2013 

Nelson Mandela was a giant of a man -- a father to many people, a leader of the masses.

People across the world and the metro-east paused Thursday when news that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had passed away at age 95. Since then, they have been mourning, celebrating and remembering his life and legacy.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison because he was an anti-Apartheid revolutionary. He led the African National Congress in the fight against white minority rule, or Apartheid, in South Africa. Madiba, the tribal name used by South Africans for Mandela, has been described by blacks, whites and other racial groups as a man who sacrificed for the good of South Africa. He learned to put any bitterness, anger or hostility that he had against his oppressors to the side and think of the bigger picture, the brighter future for all of South Africa.

Retired St. Clair County Circuit Court Judge Milton Wharton said, "President Nelson Mandela refused to be defeated and destroyed or be embittered over the injustices inflicted upon him. He never lost sight of his dedication to end Apartheid and see human rights for his people."

Wharton said "the 27 years of dedication which he exhibited during imprisonment sustained hope for change and made him the primary person in South Africa with the legitimacy to call for peace and reconciliation in spite of the Apartheid history of murder, brutality and dehumanization."

East St. Louis Poet Laureate Eugene B. Redmond said he met Mandela in a reception line in Detroit in 1990, when Mandela came there to speak after he was released from prison. "He rode down Rosa Parks Boulevard," Redmond said.

"It was something out of this world. I had long been a distant vicarious mentee of his." Redmond was a part of the Black Arts movement in 1960s and he says like many people in his generation, there were many activists fighting for equal rights for all people in all things.

"And, I had a friend ... Dennis Brutus ... who was in prison at Robben Island with him. Brutus was a lawyer and poet. He was very close to Mandela.

Brutus tried to escape and got shot in the back a couple of times. He was later returned to the prison," Redmond said. Redmond kept up with what was going on with Mandela through Brutus. Mandela's death to Redmond is happy and sad: Happy because he did the work that he was placed in this world to do and he did his job well. Sad, because he is no longer on earth, he said. Redmond hopes the younger generation really looks at Mandela's life and legacy.

"He is the last of the great warriors that would literally give his life for freedom and human dignity," Redmond said. "That's a tall order. I was at that stage for at least a decade. Mandela was a statesman and a leader and oftentimes he was the one who many times was not popular with his own people for decisions he made.

"He pulled off the impossible. He took a racially divided, ideologically culturally divided country of which whites from Europe had superimposed authority over indigenous native blacks. He took the helm of the country and brought about a common mindset and a common set of working principles, rules and policies that made the country into a peaceful one ... From colonization to democracy. This is a royal feat," Redmond said.

"And, most of the pundits, authorities on South Africa said it could not happen. They said the whites were not going to hand the country over to blacks and they said blacks were going to retaliate and make the white oppressors pay for what they did to them," Redmond said. Mandela showed the nation that people with differences in religion, culture, politics could peacefully work together and co-exist.

He said it was Mandela who made the unpopular decisions that got blacks to thinking he was becoming a traitor, was not fighting for freedoms for blacks, but was succumbing to the will of whites.

Zaki Baruti, a retired history teacher with East St. Louis School District 189, said "Mandela's contributions to the liberation of our people in South Africa is a testament to his complete dedication and sacrifice for the freedom, justice and equality of our people not only in Africa, but throughout the world."

Asked how he felt our leaders should move forward, keeping Mandela's legacy in mind, Baruti said, "They should try their utmost best to emulate the quality he exemplified. They should be dedicated and committed and make sacrifices for the good of all people so we can all come together as one nation." Baruti is also the president general of the Universal AfriKan People's Organization in St. Louis.

He traveled to South Africa two times and was very moved. "I went to Soweto Township, which Mandela was fighting to liberate," Baruti said. "And I visited the prison cell on Robben Island where he was imprisoned. I took a picture of it. I felt pained when I looked at the cell. I thought about what he had to endure. I saw the quarry where he had to work. I thought, 'Oh My God.' Again, I felt pain and hurt for what he and the others went through and I reflected on the struggle of black folk in the United States of America."

Pastor John Curry, of the Conquerors Christian Center at 200 Washington St. in Belleville, said he was inspired by Mandela's teachings to fight against racism.

"I started and founded the Nations Group right after Mandela was freed. He and the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were my inspiration for dealing with race and racism period. Our motto is no more us and them. We're one," he said.

Curry said the group seeks to foster and direct thoughtful conversation through discussions about race in our community and nation to create a better understanding as we move toward reconciliation.

Curry said people have to have the ability to forgive when you you've been wronged. And, people have to have the ability to love people who struggle to love you.

"Those are the principles that forged me to do what I do."

Curry talked about what it was like when he first came to Belleville in 1992.

"I received a phone call from a white man who asked me why we were here and told me to go back where I came from. And he said he was going to put a cross in front of the church. I told him we would dance around the cross because we would be here forever," Curry said.

Curry said it's the drive of King and Mandela that fuels those who want to see change in the community.

"If Mandela could endure being in a prison cell for 27 years and could come out with a mantle of forgiveness in him then all leaders should be able to take the mantle of love and spread it throughout," Curry said.

For years, Stanford Scott, president of the Black Leadership Summit in East St. Louis, has been on the battlefield fighting for civil rights for underdogs for a long time. He described Mandela as a visionary.

"He is one of the all time greatest international leaders that is respected and admired all over the world," Scott said.

"Mandela is not a large man. He is small in stature but he had a broadness about him and not many Americans have that. Mandela was a citizen of the world. His tenacity defied his size," he said.

Scott said he never met Mandela, but saw him on television several times and read about him in books. "I always admired his commitment. The way he was treated, I think I and plenty of others would not be able to handle it the way he did. I know I would react differently. He had that strong human spirit. He didn't have that anger," Scott said.

Scott said, "I am American and I think American. And being truthful, when people in foreign countries die it does not have any impact on me. But, Mandela was different. He impacted me. I was saddened when he died. I know what he stood for. He gave up his legal career to fight for freedom for his people and to bring his country together as one. He accomplished that mission. And in sickness, when many people thought he had taken his final breath, he came back again and again. Such a small man in statute, but, oh boy -- such a huge man in so many other ways."

Scott said he teaches the young boys that his group works with about Mandela and other men who have strong manly qualities. "We teach them that they too can be citizens of the world and grow up in East St. Louis, but travel outside of it to school and work wherever they want. We want them to know they can be citizens of the world."

Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.

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