Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Harvard Address to Nelson Mandela

The Root’s editor-in-chief gave this speech when the university presented an honorary degree to the South African president in 1998.

South African President Nelson Mandela in September 1998
South African President Nelson Mandela in September 1998 ADRIAN WYLD/AFP/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Henry Louis Gates Jr. addressed President Nelson Mandela with the following words on the conferring of a special honorary degree on Mandela by Harvard University on Sept. 18, 1998:

Like so many of my fellow faculty members, I attended university in the late ’60s and early ’70. Ours was a generation that came to believe that the goal of a liberal education was “to be a tributary to society, not a sanctuary from it,” as Bartlett Giamatti once put it. For us, a liberal education meant the inextricable connection between life and letters, between the life of the mind and life as lived, whether in the ghettoes of America or in the townships of South Africa.

No one epitomized this commitment more for our generation, Mr. Mandela, than you did. Among competing anti-war and anti-racist slogans and images, the “Free Mandela” poster was certainly the most ubiquitous. We could all agree, if we could agree on little else, that apartheid, and your imprisonment on Robben Island, were the epitome of evil and injustice. And we believed we were fighting for your release just as surely as we were fighting against the war in Vietnam and against racial segregation at home in America. A “Free Mandela” poster graced the walls of my room during my college years, and when our first daughter was born, I was proud to hang that “Free Mandela” poster on the walls of her nursery.

Anti-apartheid activism among African Americans, of course, has had a long and noble history, commencing at the turn of the century with the missionary efforts of the A.M.E. Church and extending to Dr. King’s oft-repeated reminder that “the American Negro can never be free until his brothers and sisters in South Africa are free.”

The freedom of black South Africans was a leitmotif in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois called apartheid “a medieval slave-ridden oligarchy,” and in 1950 he predicted with great foresight that before the year 2000, the black majority in South Africa “will take over this wretched and reactionary section of the world and make it into a new democratic state.” Predictably, his statement was banned in South Africa. Had he been alive, Mr. President, Dr. Du Bois would no doubt have joined the thousands of African Americans who protested before the South African Embassy in Washington and submitted to arrest in the name of your freedom and in the name of freedom of all South Africans.

On the morning that you were released, Mr. Mandela, my wife and I woke our daughters early, just to watch you walk out of prison. When you finally emerged, we were so excited and teary-eyed at your nobility, your princeliness, your straight back, your unbowed head! I felt that there walked the Negro, as my father might have said; there walked the whole of the African people, as regal as any king.

As my wife and I accompanied our daughters back to their bedroom, I happened to glance at your poster, a poster now 20 years old. “That poster is wrong,” I thought to myself. “Not only is Mandela free, but Mandela has always been free.”

Mr. President, we at Harvard are eager to help with South Africa’s transition to democracy and to economic justice in the ways a university can. We know how fraught with dangers the road to freedom is, how conversations about race are always, simultaneously, conversations about class, about economic justice.

The Du Bois Institute plans to launch a program that will enable South African scholars to spend sabbaticals at Harvard, during which they will be able to work with our faculty and students exploring solutions to the problems facing their society’s transition to a multiracial democracy. We hope, with your permission, sir, to call this group of scholars the Nelson Mandela Fellows, in honor of your triumph of the will and your commitment to justice. [Editor’s note: There have been 29 fellows since the program’s launch.]

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