South Africans and African Americans Bound by Struggle

The anti-apartheid and civil rights movements share a history of fighting for democratic change.

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Rep. John Lewis, the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who was severely beaten during the 1965 Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Ala., characterized Mandela as an “extraordinary human being” who showed no malice toward “those who arrested” and brutalized him for decades. 

“He must be looked upon as one of the foremost activists of our time, one of the most committed and dedicated human beings to human freedom, and the liberation of not just the physical body—but of the mind and spirit of people,” explained Lewis.

Mandela’s death has touched leaders across the spectrum, with Morris Dees, the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, observing that “Mandela's courage during his 27 years of imprisonment will forever inspire people to stand up to oppression and injustice,” and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calling Mandela “the father of multiethnic democracy in South Africa. All freedom-loving people will miss him, but we will never forget his sacrifice and his achievements.”

The South African struggle against racial apartheid mirrored, in many respects, America’s painful history of struggle against Jim Crow: Segregation, denial of constitutional rights and profiling and murder by law enforcement represented a shared history of suffering that forged a special bond between two communities and two movements.

Mandela’s death allows us to reflect on the current status of that special relationship. Next year will mark two decades since South Africa elected its first black—and first democratically elected—president. Both the U.S. and South Africa have experienced enormous change since that time, highlighted by President Obama’s presidential election. The triumphs of Mandela's and Obama’s elections have been tempered by bitter realities on the ground in South African Bantustans and American inner cities. The relationship, marked by so many historic and contemporary parallels, continues to be an important gauge of the health of democracy, racial equality and citizenship both abroad and at home.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.

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