Nelson Mandela and the 1st MLK Day

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
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. 


The champion of their decades-old struggle was Nelson Mandela, whose death in December we continue to mourn. He had been arrested, initially, on charges of incitement and leaving the country without a passport in 1962, when John F. Kennedy occupied the White House. At one point, in April 1963, both Mandela and King had been in jail at the same time: Mandela, a lawyer, in Pretoria, South Africa; and King, a Baptist preacher, in Birmingham. Both, too, were suspected of communist ties, real or imagined. 

But there were important differences as well. While King went free after 10 days behind bars, in May 1963 Mandela was transferred to the prison on Robben Island and, the following year, his original five-year sentence was extended to life on the additional charge of sabotage. (King, 10 years younger than Mandela, was unwavering in his embrace of nonviolence, to the point of frustrating the most radical of his supporters; Mandela, as leader of the African National Congress, had come to the conclusion that arms were necessary for self-defense.) 


So when King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, Mandela remained in prison. When King attended the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, Mandela remained in prison. When, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., where he was supporting a sanitation workers’ strike, Mandela was in prison. Mandela was still in prison when Rep. John Conyers of Michigan first proposed an MLK holiday four days later. And he remained in prison when Illinois enacted the first state King holiday in 1973; when President Jimmy Carter announced his support for a national King holiday in 1979; when Stevie Wonder released his song, “Happy Birthday,” pleading for the holiday in 1980; when Coretta Scott King lobbied Congress for it repeatedly; and when, in 1983, the House passed it, 338 votes to 90; when the Senate followed suit, 78 votes to 22; and when President Reagan signed it into law. By January 1986, when the King Dream Chorus and The Holiday Crew (including turns by, among others, Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, New Edition and a thrilling vocal performance by Whitney Houston) released the song, “King Holiday,” under the leadership of Dr. King’s son, Dexter, Nelson Mandela was 67 years old and in his 23rd year of imprisonment in South Africa. 

Bishop Tutu’s US Tour

But, just as King had his Coretta, Mandela had his Winnie. Mandela also had his version of John the Baptist: Bishop Desmond Tutu, the charismatic (and then 54-year-old) Anglican leader of the archdiocese of Johannesburg, a fellow black South African who, for two weeks in January 1986, captured Americans’ attention during a whirlwind 12-city tour to raise awareness and funds for the cause. At home in Atlanta, Coretta Scott King, as head of the King Center, may not have had the power to legislate U.S. policy on South Africa, but she could give Tutu a platform. She invited Tutu to Ebenezer Baptist Church, her late husband’s church, on his birthday, to preach and receive an award that would dramatically link King’s memory to the Free South Africa Movement being waged two decades after his death.


It was a bravura performance. On Jan. 8, 1986, Bishop Tutu arrived in the nation’s capital, where he visited the South African Embassy, site of a yearlong protest campaign against apartheid. Standing on an impromptu stage—a milk-crate or a cardboard box—in the bitter cold, striking in his religious garb, Tutu described the South African regime as “a vicious, immoral, un-Christian and totally evil system.” Applauding those present, he graciously took possession of a “truckload” of signatures expressing solidarity with his people. Proving it, 12 protestors (including the singers Peter, Paul and Mary) were arrested at the embassy that very day, while then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry announced legislation to rename that portion of Washington Avenue “Nelson and Winnie Mandela Way.”

Two years before, apartheid had barely been front-page news in America; now it was a lead story, and, with Tutu broadcasting the message, a shift in the Free South Africa Movement was quickly turning eyes (and feet) toward a direct appeal to U.S. institutions—corporations and universities alike—to divest their financial ties from South Africa. In fact, a boycott of South African canned goods at the Florida-based retail chain Winn Dixie was already underway by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Before MLK Day even arrived that month, Dr. King’s children (Martin Luther King III, Bernice and the late Yolanda) were arrested outside the Winn Dixie on MLK Drive in Atlanta, according to the Atlanta Daily World on Jan. 10, 1986. 


Movement leaders were especially frustrated that the Reagan administration, while renewing limited sanctions on South Africa in September 1985, had aligned itself with corporate titans doing everything they could to lobby against stricter measures. As part of the defense, those especially cozy with the apartheid government fashioned the disingenuous argument that somehow sanctions would hurt black workers in South Africa. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the leader of the pro-Reagan “Moral Majority” who had sided with Jim Crow forces in the 1960s, now dismissed Bishop Tutu as a “phony,” according to Manning Marable in “Apartheid and the Civil Rights Movement,” an article in the New Pittsburgh Courier on Jan. 4, 1986.

The Reagan administration’s glacial pace only met increasing defiance on American campuses, where, under pressure from students and faculty, 26 universities had divested from South Africa since the prior April, noted Marable. There was even a student shantytown dotting the Dartmouth green.


Tutu’s visit was perfectly timed for rallying the troops. Obviously aware of the approaching King holiday, the bishop wrapped himself in the King image. At a rally in Detroit on what would have been Dr. King’s 57th birthday, Tutu stood with Rosa Parks, according to the Los Angeles Times. In New York City, he preached at St. Mark’s Church citing King’s final speech—that he, too, “had been to the mountain top and I have seen the promised land,” as the New York Amsterdam News recounted. In California, Tutu addressed a throng of students in San Diego and gathered for a fundraiser among Hollywood elite, including those like Sidney Poitier, who had attended the March on Washington with King, reported the Los Angeles Sentinel.

Unlike his countryman Mandela, Tutu was a free man, a clergyman at liberty to leave his country and spread the gospel of what was to come. And, once inside the U.S., Tutu seemed to take special delight in tweaking the Reagan administration for its reluctance. On one hand, he pointed out that the administration was aggressively pushing sanctions on the leftist government in Nicaragua while, on the other hand, it was calling for patience as it pursued its policy of “constructive engagement” in South Africa. If only the U.S. president would be as consistent in opposing racial segregation abroad as he was in fighting communism, Tutu declared, “Voila! … Apartheid would be over in next to no time.” A particular embarrassment, I imagine, given that Reagan had, in designating the King holiday in 1983, gone out of his way to say, in his remarks, “let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.”


The First National King Holiday Takes a Stand

At last, the man, the memory and message came together on MLK Day weekend in Atlanta, Dr. King’s hometown and burial site. So momentous was that first national King holiday that it wasn’t just a single day celebration, recall, but nine days of events, which Coretta Scott King and the Federal Holiday Commission had planned. They included a 500,000-strong parade through the city’s streets, a candlelight vigil and a conference specially targeted to South African apartheid. But it was at the three-hour ecumenical service at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Jan. 19, the very church where Dr. King and his father had once ministered, that Tutu’s anti-apartheid message was in fullest force before an audience that, according to the Los Angeles Times, included representatives from 40 different countries as well as Reagan’s then-vice president, George H.W. Bush.


Before the bishop even spoke, as the Washington Post reported, the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference warned all those trying to “change the cry from ‘We shall overcome’ to ‘We shall overturn’… in the name of Martin, we aren’t going back.’”

When it was Tutu’s turn to speak, he made clear he was prepared to lead a full-on protest that spring if nothing changed back home. He also invoked images particularly poignant to those onstage and in the pews who had survived the civil rights movement’s bloodiest moments, including Jesse Jackson Sr. (by then a presidential candidate), Andrew Young (by then mayor of Atlanta) and John Lewis (by then an Atlanta city councilman). “Our people are peaceful to a fault,” Tutu said, according to Associated Press. “We are stupid, for we keep going up against an intransigent government. They use tear gas, bullets, dogs and whips.”


Though Tutu had, like King, won a Nobel Peace Prize (in 1984), he was careful not to compare himself to the martyr in whose name all had gathered. “I have said I do not belong in the same league with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Tutu made plain in a follow-up speech in San Diego the next day. “He was an outstanding person who was an original thinker. He was a pacifist, which I am not. I am a peace-lover.”

For Vice President Bush, captive on the Ebenezer stage with Tutu, he had these general words, according to the Washington Post: “When we are free, we want to be able to say the leaders of the free world were on our side.” One group Tutu could be sure was with him was the South Africa Action Group of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., which had chosen MLK Day as the start of a five-day fast against apartheid, according to Associated Press..


In bestowing on Tutu the King Center’s Nonviolent Peace Prize (an award that had first been given out in 1973, to Andrew Young), Coretta Scott King left little doubt about where she, the King family or the King Center stood. As the Los Angeles Times reported, she said, “We want this to be the launching pad of a new and intensified phase in the struggle to end apartheid. We will not rest until apartheid is finally abandoned.”

Talk about holding the Reagan administration’s feet to the fire! Can you imagine how awkward it must have been for Vice President Bush to sit onstage listening? To his great credit, he acted with remarkable dignity and class, and when his turn to speak came, he spoke clearly, according to the Washington Post. “In this sacred space, I call again for the end of apartheid,” adding, he hoped that “South African leaders will be able to find the same moral courage” as Dr. King.


The world noticed (as in this ABC News report from the late Peter Jennings).

Desmond Tutu wasn’t just there to speak about apartheid, but to connect it to the American civil rights movement of the ‘60s, and thereby reawaken those who had marched in it—and their descendants—for a new phase of the struggle alongside his people. And there was good reason to continue the struggle. On that very first national MLK Day, a bust of King was “white-faced” in a Buffalo, N.Y., park while the Ku Klux Klan marched in Tennessee. 


“We need you,” Tutu told those gathered at Ebenezer Baptist, reported the Los Angeles Sentinel. “We need you because when black people act nonviolently, they provoke the violence on the other side … We need you so that they [the white South African government] will that they will know that you are with us.” (Jan. 30, 1986)

‘Free at Last!’

The amazing thing about that first federal MLK Day is that it worked. Before it went off, a delegation of six U.S. congressmen, including former King deputy Walter Fauntroy, traveled to South Africa to meet with government leaders. There, they were denied access to visit personally with Nelson Mandela. Yet shortly after Tutu’s visit to the U.S., in fact by the end of January 1986, the South African government, under then-President Pieter Botha, hinted at a new openness to the possibility of releasing Mandela (at least if the Soviet Union would follow suit with regard to dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Anatoly Shcharansky). In his remarks to the South African Parliament in Cape Town on Jan. 31, Botha also indicated a willingness to ease up, gradually, on certain apartheid measures, reported the Los Angeles Times. 


In response, Reagan State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb stated for the press, “We welcome the South African government’s suggestion that it might release Nelson Mandela on humanitarian grounds, a step that could help break the stalemate in South Africa and lead to negotiations that so many have been hoping for.” The following month, Mandela’s then-wife, Winnie, announced it was only a matter of when—not if—her husband was released, without pre-conditions.

Behind the scenes, a cadre of leading American CEOs pressed the Botha government to make good on its offer. With reality quickly setting in that the Free South Africa Movement wasn’t going away anytime soon, U.S. companies facing the “twin pressures” of “unrest” in South Africa and “political harassment at homes,” started pulling out, reported the Wall Street Journal. While as few as seven U.S. companies had divested in 1984, by February 1986, that number was already at 28 companies of note, not to mention the 16 U.S. states and 56 cities that had passed their own divestment laws.


Most dramatically, in October 1986, President Reagan’s veto of new and much tougher sanctions against the South African government was overridden in Congress. With U.S. banks already refusing to roll over $14 billion in loans to South Africa, the fate of apartheid seemed just about sealed. As history records, four years later, Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison. In 1994, he was elected president of the new South Africa.

Shortly after King’s assassination in 1968, Coretta told Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes that “unearned suffering was redemptive.” Now, with the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the books, a credit to her many years of lobbying, she was seeing that redemption bear fruit at home and an ocean away. An editorial in the New Pittsburgh Courier on Feb. 22, 1986, had, in advocating for Nelson Mandela’s release, ended by asking, “[does it] sound simplistic, feebleminded, or idiotic? Maybe so. But how ridiculous does apartheid sound?”


The “love community” to which President Reagan himself had alluded in enacting the MLK holiday in 1983 found its way to Mandela, perhaps the greatest practitioner of love, at the height of his own powers. On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us renew our own call to service, confident that both men, for the first time, are finally—eternally—free.

As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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