Remembering Nelson Mandela’s Trip to Boston

The South African leader, who made a major visit to Boston in 1990, passed away Thursday.

Nelson Mandela                                            US

Associated Press

Nelson Mandela’s visit to Boston in 1990 perhaps mattered more to the city than it did to Mandela.

To be sure, the trip was important for Mandela, who passed away this Thursday at age 95. Four months before he arrived here, the South African government had freed him after 27 years in jail. Apartheid was still the law of his land. He was four years removed from the first multiracial election that would make him president. He came to Boston, part of an eight city tour of the United States, to raise money and awareness for his cause and to thank the city, the state, and one of its major political families, the Kennedys, for being among the first and most enthusiastic supporters of divesting from South Africa to protest apartheid.

But for Mandela, it was a whirlwind during which he was ushered from event to event, forever behind schedule, before being whisked off to his next city. The preceding days at the United Nations in New York City and the upcoming days in Washington D.C. where he would meet with President George H.W. Bush and address Congress, both had higher stakes.

For Boston itself, his presence was an enormous occasion, and one that emphasized some of the paradoxes in our history. As Mandela noted during his stay, Boston was the seat of the American Revolution as well as the abolition movement. Perhaps in that tradition, Massachusetts became the first state to withdraw its pension fund investments from companies that did business with South Africa. The city of Boston soon joined them in the move.

And yet, as The Boston Globe’s Wil Haygood wrote at the time, we were also a city “where, once, in memory recent enough to touch, someone viciously jabbed a black man with an American flag at an antibusing demonstration.” The city’s populations remained essentially segregated. By the time he arrived, Roxbury had twice voted on whether to secede from Boston and rename itself “Mandela.”

Those paradoxes were on display for Mandela himself to see. For a city not known for racial harmony, there was enormous, unified support for the leader and his cause.  Over a quarter million people, black and white alike came out to see and donate to him. He spoke at the Esplanade, visited Madison Park High School in Roxbury, and attended a luncheon with the Kennedy family at the JFK Library. But, as the Christian Science Monitor noted:

[T]he attendance patterns kept to Boston traditions: while it was blacks who lined the streets to cheer the motorcade and went to the school function, the crowd of an estimated 221,000 that sat all day on the Esplanade was primarily white. Many were youths who wore African clothing and raised a clenched fist during the singing of the African national anthem.

A WGBH report captured the intensity of feeling for Mandela in the black community. When he got to the school where people waited hours in an overheated auditorium to see him, he warned them about the dropout rate. “We are deeply concerned both in our country and here of the very large number of dropouts by schoolchildren,” he said to cheers.

Meanwhile, an L.A. Times story painted the scene at the Esplanade:

A crowd police estimated at 260,000 turned out on a mild, overcast day in the narrow park for an afternoon with Mandela and an array of music, performed by Jackson Browne, Bobby McFerrin, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and dozens of others.

Mandela admirers arrived on foot and by car, bus, train, bike, boat and even inner tube. Families spread out blankets and set up lawn chairs on the grass for picnics, while giant screens brought the speech closer. Hawkers sold T-shirts bearing such slogans as “Boston Welcomes Mandela” and “Sanctions Until Democracy.”

Mandela will be remembered in the next weeks largely for the impact he had on his own nation, but also for the impact he had on ours. Barack Obama notes often that he was among those inspired by Mandela. The anti-apartheid movement was his first political cause as a young college student. Mandela’s passing is a reminder that hundreds of thousands of Boston residents, like Obama, took inspiration from Mandela, and that even as Boston helped South Africa on its journey to integration, there was work to be done here, too.