December 11, 2013

KITCHELL: Mandela's honor deserved


---- — When I walked across the floor of the Indiana Convention Center six years ago this past summer, I witnessed one amazing moment.

There, during Indiana Black Expo, the longest-running event of its kind in the United States, a packed house filled with dignitaries and commoners collectively turned their heads to a jumbo screen high above them. It was as if they were all synchronized by radio control.

They were looking at an image on the screen you just don’t see on Meridian Street or any other street in Indiana. It was the face of Nelson Mandela. In a recorded message, the South African civil rights leader wished the Indiana Expo well, but did more than just offer a wave and a smile. He gave a short speech. It wasn’t much, but when the video was over, the crowd stood and cheered a man who couldn’t hear them. It was as if the expo had been blessed with all the grace it could have bestowed upon it. Instantly, it made a moment to remember for those of us who never had a chance to meet Mandela, speak to him or see him in person.

It’s that moment I wish the people in this country who today are fighting the notion that American flags should be lowered at half-staff in Mandela’s memory could have witnessed, too. Believe it or not, there are portions of this country where a presidential order to lower flags in honor of Mandela is not being heeded. Those people in those cities can pick their reasons why. Maybe they don’t like the fact the president has chosen to honor someone from another country. Maybe they just don’t like the president and will oppose anything he does or says. Maybe they just don’t want to recognize Mandela’s contributions to freedom in his country and the world because it portrays white people as inferior moralists.

Whatever the reason, my personal bet is that the people who oppose something as simply respectful as waiting for a funeral procession to pass probably know very little if anything about Mandela. I doubt these people would be willing to serve 27 years in jail for freedom or risk being executed for this country because they stood up for social justice. I doubt they realize that in becoming the first black to lead his country, Mandela quoted words from one of our nation’s best known patriotic songs, “Let freedom ring.”

For all the things we Americans hear about our country from abroad, too often we don’t take stock in the notion that this country is still an inspiration to many who have lived in oppression. For crying out loud, Mandela almost died in it and easily could have. He simply outlived those around him.

There was a time in the 1970s when the South African issues began to hit home. Indiana University’s football highlight show had a curious sponsor — the South African currency known as the kruggerand. When apartheid represented the worst kind of white supremacy practiced on this planet, IU was taking money, or kruggerands as the sponsors would have it, from the very government that supported discrimination in its purest form.

South Africans learned from the United States that they had to have more than a free country. They learned when people in places like Indiana spoke up and bounced their sponsorship that their separate but unequal ways would no longer be tolerated by the world. The Ku Klux Klan was once credited with deciding the governor’s race in Indiana in the 1920s, but a half century later, Indiana had changed, even if South Africa hadn’t.

During apartheid, I received several copies of a South African government magazine while I was at the Pharos-Tribune. In its glossy pages, the faces featured were all white. It was a magazine that looked more like the Deep South of the United States in the 1950s than any country, let alone South Africa, in the 1980s.

There are those who would argue that all changed simply because of former President Botha, but Botha himself would probably admit that South Africa would not have changed at all had it not been for Mandela.

Now there are those in this country who say, “Let’s not lower our flag for him.” To them I say,”You’ve just lowered our flag for us. You should be as ashamed of your opposition as we are of you.”

Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at