Let’s Remember—Mandela Was a Revolutionary

Nelson Mandela’s role as a statesman was vital. So was his role as a revolutionary.

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Mandela was, at one time, seen as a threat by many American leaders, not as a hero.

In the hours and weeks after a death, the instinct to lionize the departed and simplify his or her legacy is perhaps as reflexive as the knee-jerk response produced when a rubber mallet strikes the right spot. But the hard work of remembering how a man moved, in a single lifetime, from being characterized as a terrorist to being canonized is worthy of all our time.

To restrict Mandela’s story is to render an African statesman worthy of a solitary New Yorker cover, a full slate of front-page newspaper stories and most of the 24-hour cable news networks’ time a one-dimensional maker of peace at any cost. This is the very type of well-intentioned sugarcoating that cripples modern struggles for justice, because it skews the perspective that tomorrow’s warriors for change should expect to experience in their own lifetimes.

Laurels may eventually come. But deep in the struggle, when new and radical ideas for justice and equality have not yet moved into the mainstream, there will also be a time of rejection, moments of self-doubt and contradiction. It will also likely require deep personal sacrifice. 

Mandela gave it. Others, advancing new and different causes, have struggled and even collapsed under its weight. Consider the words of Frederick Douglass on the life of a radical:

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Then consider the trajectory of Mandela’s life:

Sent to prison in 1962, released in 1990 and elected president of South Africa in 1994, Nelson Mandela was not removed from the United States’ terrorist watchlist until 2008.

Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.

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