Injustice seldom ceases easily. Humans rationalize entrenched systems of persecution. Oppressed people or ideas get painted as a danger to the peaceful social order — the status quo. Cast in that image, inequality appears acceptable, even necessary, to the masses.
Speaking up and challenging that mentality carries great risk. It takes a rare spirit to face retribution from the powerful. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Terre Haute’s own Eugene Debs all accepted those consequences and became prisoners of conscience. In doing so, all stirred changes to end long-held, unjust practices in their societies.
Nelson Mandela walked the treacherous path through historic change as well. The former South African president died last week at age 95, leaving a legacy of courage, sacrifice, reconciliation and forgiveness.
Mandela spent nearly a third of his lifetime — 27 years — in prison. He had led a resistance to South Africa’s centuries-old system of apartheid, which kept whites in charge of the government and denied rights to blacks who lived and worked in that nation. In the 1950s, as The Associated Press recounted last week, Mandela sought to break apartheid through peaceful means but eventually was imprisoned in 1964, accused of sabotage against the white South African government for his later involvement as co-founder of the military branch of the opposition African National Congress. The white government built up plenty of excuses for apartheid and the jailing of Mandela, an activist lawyer committed to ending the racist policies.
The wrongs, the inhumane unfairness, could not be explained away. Mandela refused to submit and accepted his life sentence.
A life sentence. Imagine that. While in prison, his mother died and his son was killed in an automobile accident. Mandela was denied the chance to attend their funerals. Of course, his own fate was representative of millions of black South Africans. Thousands of them suffered imprisonment, too, over the years. Many were tortured and died behind bars. Mandela could have avoided the fight and stayed out of jail. He fought on.