The Ongoing Cycle of Influence and Change



Born over a decade later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the younger of the two freedom fighters. However, after he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, there was much that Nelson Mandela would admire about and learn from Dr. King in his own journey to rid his beloved South Africa of apartheid.


The two had never met, yet Dr. King’s and Nelson Mandela’s lives ran parallel in their shared dream of equality and dignity for all blacks in all places. In 1964, accused of plotting to overthrow the white South African government, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.


After serving the better part of three decades among three prisons, Mandela was released in 1990 and would go on to help facilitate the end of apartheid, which was officially and legally eradicated in 1994. In 1994, at the age of 76, Mandela would vote for the first time in his life and would become South Africa’s first black president.


Just released from prison in February of 1990, speaking to an audience of over 100,000 people, Mandela harkened back to one of his most famous speeches from 1964. The speech also echoed the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream,” and drew inspiration from Dr. King’s vision of struggling to rise against oppression through nonviolent means. In “Our Freedom,” Nelson Mandela spoke of equality for all blacks, but encouraged peacefully protesting to achieve this. Mandela said, “It is only through disciplined, mass action that our victory can be assured.” Like Dr. King, Mandela advocated to achieve this through democracy. “It is our belief that the future of our country can only be determined by a body which is democratically elected on a non-racial basis.” The foundation of not allowing the fight for freedom and equality to “degenerate into physical violence” and to remain resolute to do it through democracy are the pillars of what would inform Mandela in his fight to end apartheid.


Also soon after Mandela’s release from prison, almost 30 years after Dr. King had been assassinated, Mandela would travel to the United States for the first time, arriving in New York City, and visiting cities and with leaders from across the country. Mandela would be only the third private citizen to address a joint session of Congress. There, he spoke again of the tenets which he shared with Dr. King: the need for equality through democracy, “Our country, which continues to bleed and suffer pain, needs democracy,” Mandela said. “[…] We fight for and visualize a future in which all shall, without regard to race, color, creed or sex, have the right to vote.” Mandela would go on to visit Atlanta and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tomb as well. [1]


With the backdrop of systemic racism and institutionalized discrimination, two men, born of similar times but miles apart, would force a reckoning in their home countries to reconcile the laws with what was right and just. Nelson Mandela would live for almost half a century longer than Dr. King, but Dr. King’s message, philosophy and principles would help inform and guide Mandela throughout his life.


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