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December 7, 2013

‘A part of living history is now gone’

Nelson Mandela’s passing felt in Valley

TERRE HAUTE — With the death of Nelson Mandela, the world has lost a “giant of history” whose fight for justice and spirit of forgiveness continue to serve as an inspiration to many, say those familiar with his legacy.

Mandela, who dedicated his life to ending apartheid, a system of white racist rule in South Africa, died Thursday at age 95. He spent nearly a third of his life as a prisoner of apartheid, yet after his release, he went on to serve as South Africa’s first black president. He also shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.

Jeff Lorick, executive director of Terre Haute’s Human Relations Commission, reflected on Mandela’s legacy Friday.

“A part of living history is now gone,” Lorick said. Mandela was one of the “giants of history” who sacrificed a large part of his life in prison for a cause — to end apartheid in South Africa.

After Mandela’s release from prison, “He rose from the ashes to a place of prominence and power and encouragement and inspiration for our world,” Lorick said. “He was such an inspiration for me personally to see a man come from great tragedy … and still possess that capacity to love.”

At ISU, the Charles Brown African American Cultural Center has a downstairs auditorium named after Mandela. On the main floor, a picture of Mandela hangs in the Martin Luther King Jr. conference room.

Stephanie Jefferson, director of the  cultural center, said Mandela lived and fought for justice and equality and not just in his homeland, but for people all across the globe.

“I admired the fact that when he was released [from prison after 27 years of incarceration], he wasn’t looking for retribution. He wanted forgiveness and reconciliation for his country because he thought that was the best way to move forward,” Jefferson said.

What people can learn and emulate from the world leader is “the conviction of his beliefs, his dedication to fighting for justice for everyone” and his ability to forgive, she said.

She remembers when she was in college and anti-apartheid protests took place on many campuses. “That was the big story. That was the thing people were talking about,” she said. During that time, many universities in the U.S. were pressured to divest, or sell off, stocks or holdings in companies doing business in South Africa.

During Friday’s Kwanzaa celebration at the cultural center, organizers planned to talk about Mandela and his legacy, Jefferson said.

Valerie Hart-Craig, president of the Greater Terre Haute Branch of the NAACP, said her generation watched the dismantling of apartheid and learned about what was happening in South Africa through hip-hop music.

Hip hop artists addressed the issue of apartheid through song lyrics. “It really got the message to people who otherwise might not have listened,” she said.

Mandela was the epitome of quiet strength, she said. “You would have thought they would have broken his spirit in 27 years [of imprisonment].”

But when he was released, he continued his work to end apartheid and went on to serve as the first black president of South Africa.

“His spirit should have been obliterated. Some of us can’t handle a reprimand by a boss. We fall apart,” Hart-Craig said.

Even in recent years, though he often was very sick, “He still was speaking on behalf of South Africa, still coming here to America reminding us of what had happened, what was still going on and what needed to be done,” said Hart-Craig.

She read in an article that once he was released from prison and a crowd assembled in celebration, he asked a woman if he could hold her baby because he had not held one in 27 years. “The humanity of this man. It’s mind-boggling,” Hart-Craig said.

Everyone can learn from Mandela, she said. “We can learn persistence. Even though he seemed like a very mild-mannered man, I saw a true fighter,” she said. “He was not going to back down.”

Also, people should be willing to stand for something, she said, “and not just go about your day working, eating and sleeping. … This world is bigger than that. We have purpose, we have things we need to be doing to correct some of the wrongs.”

Mandela “didn’t just talk about what was wrong, he acted on it. This man did it until he was on his deathbed,” Hart-Craig said.

She’s sad for Mandela’s family and the next generation of young people that will never hear him in real-time. “It makes me sad because I can’t find in my mind a replacement” for Mandela, one of the great figures of modern history.

Hart-Craig hopes parents talk to their children about apartheid and what Mandela’s leadership meant for South Africa — and the world.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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