Nelson Mandela and the 1st MLK Day

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: From the very beginning, the King holiday reminded us how the struggle for freedom continued.


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Nelson Mandela

AFP/Getty Images; STF/Getty Images

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 64: How were Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela linked?

A Holiday Is Born

"Martin Luther King, Jr., and his spirit live within all of us. Thank God for the blessing of his life and his leadership and his commitment. What manner of man was this? May we make ourselves worthy to carry on his dream and create the love community.”

I doubt President Ronald Reagan, quoted above, could imagine that by designating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a federal holiday with these words at a White House Rose Garden ceremony on Nov. 2, 1983, this annual remembrance would be used against him two years later. However, they were used to raise a chorus of voices against Reagan on the international stage for his failure to support the end of apartheid in South Africa and the freeing of Nelson Mandela.   

It’s not that Reagan was blind to the King mystique, or to his revolutionary ways. (In fact, at a press conference in October 1983, Reagan let dangle the old smear that King had been a “communist sympathizer” and, in a private letter, wrote that when evaluating the civil rights movement’s slain leader, “the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality.”) Yet, in signing the King Holiday Bill that Congress had passed, perhaps Reagan assumed he had earned political capital with his critics on the left who so far had been unimpressed with his record on civil rights. Perhaps he also thought that by quoting the “I Have a Dream” speech, he could transform Dr. King’s prophetic message—of social and economic justice, of nonviolence at home and abroad—into a politically conservative vision of a color-blind America. 

He was wrong.

By the time the first national MLK Day rolled around on Jan. 20, 1986, it was impossible for anyone who had listened to the “reality” of King’s speeches—and seen him march in places ranging from Selma and Birmingham, Ala., to Chicago and Cicero, Ill.—to ignore the extent to which the Reagan administration was dragging its feet on expanding sanctions on the most brutally color-conscious system the world had tangled with since Jim Crow: South African apartheid. At the same time, perhaps, Reagan had underestimated King’s apostles, above all his widow, Coretta Scott King. She understood that to give her husband’s birthday relevancy and resonance—indeed, to live up to his example—they had to do more than remember past injustices overcome. They had to dedicate the holiday to confronting present injustice wherever found, and that would draw their attention to Robben Island and apartheid South Africa.

A Tale of 2 Prisoners

Their cause on that first MLK Day was galvanizing support for the abolition of apartheid, a violent, degrading system of racial segregation that South Africa’s white minority-run government had implemented before anyone (including Coretta) had even heard of Martin Luther King Jr. But the parallels between the struggle he eventually led in America in the 1960s and those of some 25 million black South Africans in the 1980s were unmistakable: de facto and de jure segregation as a legal and living reality in every imaginable sphere, including restrictions on black home ownership (whites owned 80-90 percent of the land), access to schooling and jobs, and to the most fundamental human rights: whom a black person could love and marry, where he could travel and how he could defend himself in and out of court. If anything, apartheid was even more extreme than Jim Crow, despite the fact that unlike in America, black South Africans accounted for 75 percent of the country’s population.