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.
At his trial in 1964, Mandela spoke up again. “I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience.” In court on that day a half-century ago, he didn’t waver from the struggle against racial domination. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony 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,” Mandela said.
He was released on Feb. 11, 1990. Four years later, apartheid formally stopped and Mandela was elected president. He and others paid a high price for liberation. Imprisonment stole the prime of his adulthood, halted his family life and doomed his marriage. At the time of his divorce from his first wife, Winnie, he called himself “the loneliest man.” Yet, he forged ahead, remarried, inspired millions (perhaps billions), and continued seeking peace and equality. Like Gandhi, MLK and Debs, Mandela had flaws. As president, he could not possibly match expectations as a symbol of freedom, and South Africa encountered problems common in a fledgling democracy. Nonetheless, those years soundly disproved apartheid die-hards who predicted equality would spawn chaos.
Mandela further confounded white antagonists by seeking their cooperation and extending forgiveness. “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner,” Mandela wrote in his 1995 autobiography. He titled the book, “Long Walk to Freedom.” Mandela chose the road less traveled. The world is a better place because he did so.
— Tribune-Star, Terre Haute