On Thursday, Nelson Mandela died at his home at the age of 95. The anti-apartheid leader was imprisoned for 27 years and later became South Africa’s first black president. “He is now resting,” declared South African President Jacob Zuma. “Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.”
Many Philadelphians remember Nelson Mandela’s visit to the city in 1993, when he was awarded the Liberty Medal by President Bill Clinton, who was serving his first term in the White House. The co-recipient of the medal was South African President F. W. de Klerk, who worked with Mandela to bring an end to apartheid.
Below, Nelson Mandela’s Liberty Medal acceptance speech, delivered on July 4, 1993 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia:
Equally, it will have seemed strange to some that we as fighters for liberation, are – together with those who have been captains of the apartheid – involved in processes leading to the democratic transformation of South Africa.
Some who know have also made the point that it was strange, 200 years ago, that those who designed the world’s first democratic constitution in this very city should have permitted slavery to continue.
Strange though all these things might be, and evocative of different responses, they nevertheless speak to one issue: They speak to the durability of the glorious vision that gave birth to the independence of this country and to the United States Constitution.
They affirm the correctness and invincibility of the truths and the ideals of liberty, equality and pursuit of human happiness contained in that historic document as well as the Declaration of Independence.
It is therefore, with a deep sense of humility that we stand here today to receive a medal which bestows on us – as individuals, as a movement and as a people – the stature of the founding fathers who crafted your Constitution.
The great African American, Frederick Douglass, spoke in Rochester, NY, on July 5, 1852, on the topic “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” Here is some of what he said:
“Fellow citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic… They were great men, too – great enough to give the frame to a great age… In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests…Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles and set a glorious example in their defense.”
It would be a rare honor to those who will draw up our own constitution that they should thus be described by the democratic commentators and freedom activists of our own age and of the future.
It is a moving thing for us – that we, who represent forces that have still to proclaim that freedom’s day has come, are today being handed the baton in the race to liberty, at whose starting point in Philadelphia stood the great men of whom the freed slave Frederick Douglass spoke with such warmth and charity of spirit.
But we would not be true to Frederick Douglass if we did not recall other things that this great intellect and fighter for freedom said in the same address 141 years ago. Frederick Douglass asked the poignant question:
“Are the great principles of political freedom and natural justice, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”
Struck by an almost palpable grief, he went on to say:
“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me…This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice; I must mourn.”
“Fellow Citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions…My subject, then, fellow citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view.”
This is perhaps the greatest challenge we face as we struggle for the new birth of freedom; that none within our country should in [the] future proclaim that justice, liberty and prosperity are not shared by them, as Frederick Douglass, the black enslaved and the women of this country.
In the struggle for real change and a just peace, we will have to overcome the terrible heritage of the insult to human dignity, the inequalities, the conflicts and antagonisms that are the true expression of the apartheid system.
To overcome them, we will have to succeed to build one nation in which all South Africans will be to one another sister and brother, sharing a common destiny and shorn of the terrible curse of having to define themselves in racial and ethnic terms.
We must therefore negotiate and agree on a constitution and a Bill of Rights that are both truly democratic and fully guarantee the fundamental human rights of all our citizens.
We must engage in the challenging process of the fundamental reconstruction of our country in all spheres of human endeavor, so that the liberation of both the oppressed and the oppressor from the tyranny of racism becomes tangible, the equality of all, actual, and the recognition of the dignity of every human being, real.
So that the emancipation of our people, for which you also struggled, becomes a manifest and genuine continuation of what you sought to achieve when you declared your independence, adopted your constitution, your Bill of Rights and your civil right instruments of what you tried to realize when you went to war for the unity of your country, the emancipation of the slaves and, later, the destruction of fascism.
So that our emancipation becomes a manifest and genuine continuation of the struggles you have waged when you have striven to attain what you thought and think is just, as you grappled with the reality of what is for untold millions, both inside and outside this country, but a dream deferred – the multitudes that are hungry, homeless and jobless; deprived of access to good health and knowledge; caught in the web of violence, drug abuse and hopeless despair; and stand at the city gates with no other possibility to make their voices heard than to put to the torch the rich inheritance which Frederick Douglass denounced – not because it was unworthy in itself, but because it had betrayed itself by excluding others who were as human as those who were the beneficiaries of the vision of freedom and prosperity to which the city is heir.
You, the peoples of the United States of America and of the world, stood with us as we fought for our political emancipation. We urge you to stay the course until freedom is won.
We call on you to invest in the new South Africa, to share with us your expertise and technology so that we come together in a joint venture that will produce the mutually beneficial result of democracy, prosperity, peace and stability for both our countries; friendship and cooperation between our peoples and enable us both to own the liberation of South Africa as a common prize.
Let The Liberty Medal, which we are humbled to receive from the President of the United States, serve as the lodestar which guides us, as South Africans, as we march to freedom.
Let it be our pledge to you that we shall seize on the eternal principles of justice, liberty and peace and set an example in their defense.
Let it be the seal of an unbreakable treaty of friendship between our people which it will be durable.
Because it responded to a clarion call which Frederick Douglass made.
Because it respected the memory of those who have perished through the ages, in the quest for liberty.
Because it pays homage to those whose sacrifices have enabled us as South Africans to say that freedom is in sight!
We thank you for the honor you have bestowed on your people, both black and white, and will convey to them your noble sentiments of respect, love and solidarity.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter issued the following statement on Thursday regarding the death of Nelson Mandela:
Nelson Mandela was an incredible man. His was a life well lived and well spent—he freed a nation but also freed so many others all around the world with his actions. He was an incredible champion, leader and father of a movement that preached non-violence and forgiveness.
I had the honor of meeting President Mandela in Philadelphia in the 1990s, and he is one of the most remarkable and influential people I have ever met. I traveled to South Africa in 2005 and visited Robben Island, where President Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. I saw his cell. I watched his long walk to freedom on live television when he was released from prison by the apartheid regime. His idea for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was possibly one of the best ideas of any human. It was the epitome of his philosophy.
President Mandela never spoke vengeance even after his 27 years in prison with hard labor—an imprisonment that was the result of his straight forward demand that all South Africans could vote, be free and participate in the vitality of their own country.
We have only seen a few individuals like President Mandela in history, others being Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in our region, the Rev. Leon Sullivan, who developed his principles to fight apartheid using financial means, and Rev. Bill Gray III, our Congressman, who knew President Mandela and created a multiracial coalition for civil rights. This is a sad day in the world, but all of us have benefitted from his strength, courage, commitment to human condition. He had an unbending belief in freedom, democracy and the potential of every person regardless of race, nationality and gender.
The world has lost a great hero. Let us honor him by seeking to be as good as he was. And let us live by these words that he has left us for all eternity, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
PHOTOS: AP Photo