On Feb. 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison for sedition against South Africa’s white-only Nationalist government.
The anti-apartheid leader’s legacy continued to impact and inspire after his release through visits to other nations, including the United States.
Many Atlantans revered Mandela and thought of him in the same regard as Martin Luther King Jr. during Mandela’s visit in June 1990.
On the 30th anniversary of his release, we remember his global impact on civil rights.
Former President Barack Obama tweeted to honor Mandela’s anniversary.
Mandela was born to the Thembu royal family in Mvezo, British South Africa, in 1918.
Even in early years he lived an unconventional life.
According to The Mandela Foundation, he heard stories of his ancestors’ role in the wars of resistance and dreamed of making his own contribution to the freedom struggle of his people.
His higher education consisted of multiple unfinished university and law degrees, involvement in student protests, and running away to escape an arranged royal marriage.
Mandela earned a law diploma in 1952 and became more involved in politics. He grew increasingly connected to the anti-colonial African National Congress (ANC).
He was arrested for his political activities on suspicion of treason and was imprisoned for 27 years. While in prison, his mother and eldest son, Thembi, died. He was not allowed to attend their funerals.
In 1990, apartheid ended, and the ANC became a legal political party in South Africa. Nine days later on Feb. 11, Mandela was released.
Mandela eventually became South Africa’s first black president in the nation’s first democratic election.
He served only one term, though; his efforts remained focused on speaking against institutionalized racism. In 1993, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. He remained active as a philanthropist and revolutionary until his death in 2013.
“As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest. We shall never forget how millions of people around the world joined us in solidarity to fight the injustice of our oppression while we were incarcerated. Those efforts paid off and we are able to stand here and join the millions around the world in support of freedom against poverty.” —Mandela, Live 8 Concert in 2005
Thirty years ago, about 54,000 people flocked to Bobby Dodd Stadium in Midtown to hear Mandela speak months after his release, welcoming him as a hero, according to the AJC.
He compared his work in South Africa to MLK Jr.’s role in the civil rights movement.
“We are ... conscious that here in the southern part of the country, you have experienced the degradation of racial segregation. We continue to be inspired by the knowledge that in the face of your own difficulties, you are in the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement in this country.” — Mandela while addressing Atlanta crowds in 1990
His response was largely positive even so soon after his release.
“It's like a spiritual enlightening,” said one Atlanta woman in attendance. “Our parents experienced Martin Luther King. Our generation is experiencing Nelson Mandela.”
The United Nations recognizes Nelson Mandela International Day on July 18, his birthday, with commemorative events and public service opportunities.
The Mandela Foundation will host events in South Africa for Tuesday’s significant anniversary of his release. These events “will consider the ‘new prisons of Africa’ that have come to define life for many, and focus on how to achieve substantive liberation,” the foundation said.
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