Atlanta, dubbed the “City Too Busy to Hate” during the American civil rights movement, is mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela, one of the most iconic symbols of racial reconciliation in modern times.
The death Thursday of the 95-year-old former South African president is being seen locally as a cause for reflection about the importance of continuing the fight for equality and freedom.
Atlanta has been burnishing its credentials as a city of peace and tolerance as it prepares for next year’s opening of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and a conference of Nobel Peace Prize laureates in 2015.
Mr. Mandela was lauded the world over as a symbol of freedom and forgiveness for helping end the apartheid system of segregation without taking revenge on white perpetrators when he came to power.
But though his legacy is one of inclusion, Mr. Mandela didn’t embrace the radically nonviolent stance of Martin Luther King Jr., Atlanta’s native son and the leader of the movement to bring equal rights to blacks in the South.
The two men shared mutual inspiration drawn from shared values of freedom and dignity, despite the fact that their methodologies diverged at times.
In a 1964 speech in London en route to claiming his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Dr. King acknowledged that blacks in the South at least had at the ability to assemble and register voters.
“But in South Africa even the mildest form of non-violent resistance meets with years of imprisonment, and leaders over many years have been restricted and silenced and imprisoned. We can understand how in that situation people felt so desperate that they turned to other methods, such as sabotage,” Dr. King said in the speech, which is on file in the King Collection of papers at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Mr. Mandela helped found the armed wing of the African National Congress and was imprisoned on Robben Island for acts of sabotage and dissent. His incarceration lasted 27 years in total.
In a video published in July, Bernice King, daughter of Dr. King and CEO of the King Center for Nonviolent Change in Atlanta, said she was 27 years old when Mr. Mandela got out of prison. She realized he had been in custody the whole time she’d been alive.
His ability to let go of bitterness was “healing” for a young woman who was still struggling with anger over her father’s assassination, she said, noting that Mr. Mandela was a living symbol of the ideals for which her father died.
“I remember him coming here, and it was so exciting. For most people, Dr. King is the hero, but for Bernice King, Nelson Mandela was my hero,” said Ms. King.
Cedric Suzman, a South African native and the director of programs at the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, also met Mr. Mandela in Atlanta in the 1990s, despite his history of family ties with the transformative figure.
Dr. Suzman’s uncle, Harold J. Hanson, was part of Mr. Mandela’s defense team in his trial in the early 1960s. In his plea for a mitigated sentence, Mr. Hanson argued to the white judge that his Afrikaner people, descendants of Dutch colonials, had waged their own violent struggle for independence, Dr. Suzman said.
Mr. Hanson also helped tone down Mr. Mandela’s closing statement for fear that it would garner a harsh sentence. To his dismay, Mr. Mandela ended it with the now-famous line, “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Dr. Suzman’s aunt on the other side of the family, Helen Suzman, opposed apartheid during her 36 years in parliament, often serving as the “mouthpiece” of the opposition even though their politics didn’t always line up.
“The government had this veneer of democracy, so anything said in parliament had immunity, so she used that to great effect,” Dr. Suzman told Global Atlanta.
She spoke out against the living conditions at Robben Island and played a role in getting blankets and reading materials to the prisoners, which enabled Mr. Mandela to get a law degree by correspondence.
After his release, they had a more personal relationship, with Mr. Mandela showing her loyalty even as she was criticized for opposing economic sanctions on the apartheid regime.
“They would have meals together. He would go to her house at a moment’s notice and they would talk about things,” Dr. Suzman said.
Dr. Suzman didn’t meet Mr. Mandela until Coca-Cola Co. hosted a 75th birthday celebration dinner for him in Atlanta. Even before he was president, Mr. Mandela’s “royal demeanor” and sense of humor made an impression.
“Immediately, you wanted to rise and say this is a man of huge charisma and projection of power. He projected his personality, and his confidence in himself was absolute,” Dr. Suzman said, remembering receiving a “smile and a handshake” upon their meeting.
While celebrated as a peacemaker, Mr. Mandela had intensity and purpose that drove him throughout a lifelong fight, Dr. Suzman said.
“It should not be mistaken, this was a man of steel. He was a boxer; he was in his youth more belligerent and outspoken but absolutely focused on his end goal, which was a democratic and multiracial and inclusive South Africa, and everything he did was to make that possible,” Dr. Suzman said.
Local Leaders Hail Mandela’s Impact
Atlanta officials and institutions have offered their tributes to the late leader since his death Dec. 5. Many have issued statements on their websites or posted old photos and condolences on social media profiles.
Historically black colleges, many of which conferred honorary degrees upon Mr. Mandela in the 1990s, showed special appreciation for the leadership of South Africa’s first black president.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was an undergraduate at Howard University in Washington during Mr. Mandela’s visit in 1994 and got to meet the president.
“I was profoundly moved by his strength, dignity and grace. A photograph from that day hangs in my office; Mr. Mandela has been a constant source of inspiration for me and millions across the globe. We are all better because of the life he lived,” Mr. Reed said in a statement.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who has worked with Mr. Mandela on climate-change issues in a group of former world leaders called The Elders, also noted his sadness at the passing of Mr. Mandela.
“His passion for freedom and justice created new hope for generations of oppressed people worldwide, and because of him, South Africa is today one of the world’s leading democracies,” Mr. Carter said.
The consulates general of India and Israel in Atlanta also passed on statements of sympathy from their governments.
According to Dr. Suzman, a memorial of Mr. Mandela’s life is currently being planned for Wednesday, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m. at the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College, which houses a portrait of Mr. Mandela.
A portrait of his friend Helen Suzman was installed there in 2010 during a ceremony where Ebrahim Rasool, South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, gave an impassioned speech on tolerance and reconciliation.
Vicki Crawford, director of the collection of Dr. King’s papers at Morehouse, said she hopes to launch some collaborations with South Africa so that the legacy of the civil-rights icons will be passed on to the next generation.
“The passing of Nelson Mandela is another opportunity for teaching history, and it really speaks to the critical importance of introducing students to the history of freedom movements and the history of social change,” Dr. Crawford told Global Atlanta.
The day before Mr. Mandela’s death on Dec. 5, the soon-to-be-released biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and was screened to college students at Atlantic Station. The movie, based on Mr. Mandela’s eponymous autobiography, will open in theaters on Christmas day.
Read excerpts from the South African ambassador’s speech at Morehouse and learn more about Helen Suzman here: Nelson Mandela’s Middle Ground
Watch a video of Mr. Rasool discussing MLK’s impact on the anti-apartheid movement: South Africa: Tolerance Paved the Way for Prosperity