I hoped then that life might offer me the opportunity to serve my people and make my own humble contribution to their freedom struggle. This is what has motivated me in all that I have done in relation to the charges made against me in this case.
I have done whatever I did, both as an individual and as a leader of my people, because of my experience in South Africa and my own proudly felt African background, and not because of what any outsider might have said.
I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the Whites.
-Nelson “Madiba” Mandela, July 18, 1918-December 5, 2013
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 84 this year. His life and words have been celebrated in memorial of the 1963 March on Washington, reaching a peak on the anniversary on August 28th. King’s Elder by 11 years, Nelson Mandela, passed away at the age of 95: a full life well-lived.
Both men were irrevocably influenced by Gandhi, the “archetypal anti-colonial revolutionary.” King traveled to India in 1959 as a “disciple of Gandhi”; in 1993 Mandela encouraged his country to “pay heed to the lessons of Mahatma Gandhi.” (Both men also failed in their attempts for systemic change to economic interests in their respective countries.) And both men articulated their lifelong commitment to their respective struggle in similar ways. Compare Mandela’s closing of his opening statement at his April 20, 1964 trial with Dr. King’s last speech in Memphis, Tennessee.
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. -Nelson Mandela
Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn’t matter to with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [Applause] And I don’t mind. [Applause continues] Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. (Yeah) And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I’ve looked over (Yes sir), and I’ve seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. -MLK
History paints the South African government, which utilized a system of racial segregation founded in colonial rule and official policy beginning in 1948 called apartheid (“the state of being apart”), as a brutal, repressive form of white supremacy. In the United States, the narrative of segregation is shrouded in the idea that the government’s complicity in racial violence and oppression occurred despite a desire to do otherwise. In other words, our history of white supremacy is an accident, a mistake, which we are constantly overcoming. Jim Crow, in this story, is a hiccup of history and left to the past.
Mandela spent 27 years, from 1964-1991, imprisoned. Many of the the accusations were false. Some, including the use of violence for the “planned destruction of power plants, and interference with rail and telephone communications” were readily admitted by Mandela. (Could you imagine if Dr. King planned violent attacks against government and corporate infrastructure?) While Mandela was accused of more serious crimes by a supposedly more brutal government, he outlived the younger King by nearly a half a century. Dr. King died a violent death at the end of a bullet. Mandela died of natural causes after a long life and battles with health-related issues. Again, Mandela had moved away from non-violent strategies, stating at the 1964 Rivonia Trial: “But the hard facts were that fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights.” King, on the other hand, was in Memphis doubling down on non-violent civil disobedience, having called off the previous week’s demonstration due to instances of violence from protesters. One government offered due process and a trial, the other complicit in an assassination. Both men made their own choices in regards to resistance. Mandela heard the desire for violence from his fellow black countrymen and incorporated it into his own actions. King listened to his colleagues and rivals and continued to preach the power of love.
In the 45 years between his imprisonment and his passing, Mandela transformed to a relatively young man who had lost faith in the strategy of non-violence (“Four forms of violence were possible. There is sabotage, there is guerrilla warfare, there is terrorism, and there is open revolution. We chose to adopt the first method and to exhaust it before taking any other decision.”) to a well-respected voice for peace, equality and justice. He helped bring together a group called the Elders, “peace makers, peace builders, social revolutionaries, pioneering women and change makers,” all of whom have “earned international trust, demonstrated integrity and built a reputation for inclusive, progressive leadership.” His journey from radical revolutionary to political prisoner to president to elder demonstrates the transformation that so often occurs in a full-lived life. It’s too bad we never had a chance to see the end of Dr. King’s long walk.