Nelson Mandela led America, too

Coretta Scott King led a protest in front of the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 29, 1984.
Coretta Scott King led a protest in front of the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 29, 1984.

Today, President Barack Obama will speak at a celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela, an international icon whose transition from revolutionary to prisoner to president put South Africa on the path of democracy and freedom.

But Mandela's struggle also shaped the United States, providing impetus for an extension of the civil rights movement and leaving a legacy of reconcilation that is worth emulation.

In the 1980s, this nation viewed foreign policy primarily through the lens of the Cold War — anything with Soviet support, such as Mandela's African National Congress, was immediately suspect.

But the American people, schooled by our own battles for freedom and equality, refused to accept a partnership with a country that brutally oppressed its black majority,

"Free Mandela" protests dom-inated college campuses, and there were union and church demands for universities, governments, businesses and pensions to divest of South African business interests. The Congressional Black Caucus organized regular protests in Washington D.C., attracting celebrities and activists from across the world.

Mandela soon became an American symbol for justice, glorified in popular music and on film. The momentum built to the point that, when President Ronald Reagan vetoed legislation to impose economic sanctions on South Africa, a bipartisan vote in Congress overrode the veto.

The sanctions helped set the stage for the day Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years and talked about his vision of "a rainbow nation, at peace with itself."

Americans should be proud of our role in forcing change with strategy and moral outrage rather than with bombs and troops. As we join the world and celebrate this great man's contributions, it's worth considering how America can reconnect to that energy.

What other injustice in the world should we stand up to and say, "no more?"

What other people suffer needlessly in our own country's shadows — the working poor, the mentally ill or the shut-in elderly?

Yet, responding well to any crisis requires trying to live up to Mandela's example of putting aside personal pique and party politics for the betterment of the country and in service of democratic principles. In the current political environment, it's hard to believe we have that capacity.

Mandela thought so.

After his release from prison in 1990, he thanked American audiences for supporting him during his imprisonment and giving the strength and hope needed to lead his country.

He told a crowd in Oakland, Calif.: "Remember that we respect you, we admire you and, above all, we love you all."