A statue of Nelson Mandela outside the South African Embassy on Dec. 6, 2013, in Washington, D.C.
Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Watching the world mourn the loss of Nelson Mandela is an experience at turns uplifting and incredibly odd.

In the first few hours of coverage after his death at age 95 on Thursday, there were the obligatory references to Mandela having “gone home” after leading his nation to a “unified” and higher state. Here, said the early tributes, was a hero who made the world a better and “more egalitarian” place. And, of course, there were the mentions of Mandela, grand champion of peace and reconciliation, presumably not embittered by spending 27 years in a political prison.

Notably absent from many public remembrances was the story of the patrician but “fire-breathing revolutionary” described by the New York Times’ Zakes Mda; the man described by Danny Schechter, author of Mandiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela, as so unsure that peaceful protests alone would bring change to South Africa that as late as 1994, he refused to renounce violence as a condition of his prison release.

Early on, Mandela did not rule out violent revolution as a means of achieving universal enfranchisement, economic inclusion and constitutional equality—a collection of both means and ends that at one time were considered radical. Later on, he made political compromises that he considered pragmatic but some questioned or even described as subtle betrayals of the African liberation cause.

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Today, even the most ardent proponents of big business and enemies of organized labor profess a commitment to Mandela’s peace-centered ideas around voting and social inclusion. They describe their well-documented support for voter-ID laws that limit minority participation as efforts to protect, rather than restrict, democracy.

And all but the most vocal and extreme advocates of Second Amendment rights generally shudder at the idea of mingling political change with violence.

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Mandela's ideas have gone mainstream—but this wasn’t always the case.

We tend to forget that in Reagan-era America, the majority of Republican members of the House of Representatives—including then-Rep. Dick Cheney and 32 Democrats—voted against a nonbinding resolution calling on the South African government to free Mandela.

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“The ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization,” Cheney said on ABC's This Week during his vice presidential run in 2000. “I don’t have any problems at all with the vote I cast 20 years ago.”

What’s also often overlooked is our own Central Intelligence Agency’s role in helping the South African government arrest and imprison Mandela.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.