When Mandela was released from prison after 27 years behind bars for being a threat to the South African government, he was the most famous prisoner in the world and a moral force of great dimension, even from his cell.
At the time of his release it was not clear if South Africa was headed toward mass violence and civil war, or if freeing Mandela would be the beginning of the end of the apartheid system of racial segregation where a white minority ruled a black majority. We know now that Mandela would lead his country toward reconciliation, not war, and that he would be elected president of South Africa in 1994. But when he appeared before Congress in 1990, none of us knew for sure how he would finally shape world history and the history of his nation.
Earlier, when President Ronald Reagan had vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, a bill placing economic sanctions on South Africa, it was Congress that overrode that veto. A provision of that law called for the release of Nelson Mandela from jail. The United States Congress was very proud to see Nelson Mandela free at last. It feels very good to be on the right side of great historical forces.
What follows is my eyewitness account of Mandela’s appearance before Congress. One co-incidental aspect of his visit that was important to me was that my office had just published for the first time a biographical book Black Americans in Congress, which came off the presses at the Government Printing Office shortly before Mandela’s visit. Among the gifts Mandela received during his visit to Congress, was a special leather bound copy with his name embossed in gold on the cover. I was not present when the gift was presented, but I took great satisfaction in knowing that he had received this work.
The chamber and the galleries were packed solid and a closed circuit TV viewing area was set up in Statuary Hall to accommodate another 250 persons who could not get into the galleries or onto the floor. Bruce, Cynthia, [Bruce Ragsdale and Cynthia Miller from my staff] and I went over about 10:30 and found the floor already filling up with Members and staff.
We took our place along the rail on the Democratic side of the chamber, and knew from the size of the crowd that we would not get seated and would have to remain along the rail. Winnie Mandela, Effie Barry, (the Mayor’s wife), Heather Foley, and others including Virginia Governor Doug Wilder, were seated in the gallery directly above us and were difficult to view from our angle without making a special effort to stand further into the crowded chamber and look up behind us.
At one point before the House came to order [Congressman] John Conyers, spotting Governor Wilder in the gallery, asked him if he didn’t want to come down on the floor. “You should be down here,” Conyers said. The Governor ended up remaining where he was and the truth is he was more visible to the floor, the galleries and the TV cameras where he was, just a few seats from Winnie Mandela. The Mayor of Washington, Marion Barry, was conspicuous in his absence. But the controversy surrounding his trial was sufficient to keep him away, and was proof of how far he has fallen even though he still is the mayor.
It was an interesting juxtaposition to see Wilder on one side of the chamber and directly across from him in the opposite gallery was Jesse Jackson, seated next to Harry Belafonte. Wilder, many say, is being groomed to be the Democrat’s answer to the “Jesse Problem.” The only way to stop Jesse Jackson from being a divisive influence at national conventions is to come up with another black candidate for the vice-presidential spot. Wilder could be the one.
The chamber was filled with a much higher percentage of blacks than is usually the case. Many were nationally known leaders and entertainers in this country as well part of Mandela’s entourage, including members of the ANC [African National Congress]. It was the closest atmosphere I can remember in a long time to the kind of enthusiasm generated during the Civil Rights movement.
The blacks in attendance were thrilled to be able to see Mandela and be part of the event. There was a lot of hugging and handshaking and a number of individuals raised their right arms with the ANC’s clenched fist salute, especially during the relaxed atmosphere before the speech began. Jesse Jackson seemed sullen and serious, and sat quietly in his gallery seat. But he acted like a cheerleader after the speech began and was always among the first to start clapping and he was the first to stand up for the first of the standing ovations Mandela received.
The speech itself was straightforward and not particularly scintillating. It was well delivered and built from a matter of fact accounting of the situation in South Africa to more emotional and symbolic rhetoric in the second half of the speech. The acoustics in the chamber were not as good as usual. I think the microphone levels were off or Mandela stood farther from the mike than he should have, although even the Speaker [Tom Foley] was not as audible as usual from his microphone.
I heard a number of people comment on the poor sound quality in the chamber, so I know it was not just my ears or my location. Part of the problem may have been exacerbated by the crush of people. Some shorter individuals who were on the floor wished they were in the gallery because there was no way they could see over the people in front of them along the rail. One tall black staffer who was accompanied by a short black woman admitted to her that he wasn’t thinking about her when he pulled all the strings he could to get floor passes. He apologized by saying “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking of you, I only knew I wanted to be on the floor when Mandela spoke — I had to be here.” She seemed to understand, but sarcastically replied, “Can I sit on your shoulders?”
I thought how ahistorical President Bush’s request was. Here he is, the president of a country that was born in violent revolution and one that fought a bloody Civil War over slavery, in which more than six hundred thousand Americans were killed and many more wounded and President Bush was telling a leader of a racially torn nation run as a totalitarian police state by a white minority to behave himself and not hurt anybody.
It would be an awful thing to see South Africa torn by a race war that would likely kill hundreds of thousands of people. But the white South African regime has sown generations of hate and is on the verge of reaping the whirlwind.
There is no turning back now. Mandela’s leadership, since he was released from prison just a few months ago, has rekindled a spirit of urgency in the struggle for racial justice around the world like nothing in recent memory. Mandela has stirred up forces that he may not be able to contain or channel to his ends. But the genie is out of the bottle and a lot of blacks around the world are saying it is about time.
After the speech I milled around outside the Capitol on the east front as the departing crowds lined up for one more look at Mandela as he left the Capitol in his motorcade. People were visibly moved when he waved in their direction. One black woman standing next to me said out loud to no one in particular, “He waved at me; Nelson Mandela waved at me.” I felt he waved at me too, that he waved to both races that day. The crowd quickly dispersed as soon as Mandela’s motorcade left the Capitol.
I strolled back toward the Cannon building taking in the excitement of the crowd and reflecting on this historic moment. Mandela’s day began at 8 AM in the Cannon building, where the Congressional Black Caucus held a breakfast for him. I did not go up to see what was going on in the Cannon Caucus Room, but I could tell it was a large and boisterous crowd from the sounds that filtered down the staircase from two flights above my office when I came into work yesterday.
I heard that breakfast was not served until after 9 AM because the first hour was taken up with a photo session. Each member of Congress at the breakfast wanted to have his or her picture taken with Mandela. Not group shots, but individual pictures that made it appear that this one Member and the great Nelson Mandela sat down together to discuss world problems.
Mandela must have been a very patient and tolerant man to sit through all this. But in many ways it is a small price to pay for the support he will get from all those members who now have their picture of their good friend Nelson Mandela. I wish I could have had my picture taken with him too. I took solace in the fact that one of the gifts given to him at the breakfast was a leather bound copy of the book my office produced, Black Americans in Congress, with his name, title, and the date of his speech before Congress stamped in gold on the cover.