“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
In 1964, Nelson Mandela spoke those words in a South African courtroom, while on trial for plotting to overthrow the country’s all-white apartheid government. Mandela received a life sentence and while imprisoned for the better part of the next three decades, he became a worldwide symbol in the fight to end the apartheid subjugating South Africa’s black majority.
But Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95, was more than just a symbol. His name was a clarion call for people across the globe in their struggles against oppression. He personified the triumph of nearly unimaginable perseverance over nearly unimaginable tribulation:
After 27 years in prison Mandela was released in 1990. Immediately, at the age of 71, he began negotiating a peaceful transition to a multi-racial democracy in South Africa, where racial policies had provoked generations of violence and hate.
For the rest of his life, the world’s “most famous prisoner” refused to show bitterness to his enemies, preferring instead to seek reconciliation. His actions were, and continue to be, a model for peaceful conflict resolution worldwide. When he shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 — with his former jailer, South African President F.W. De Klerk — Mandela discreetly declined comment, realizing the wrong words might unravel the fragile negotiations to dismantle apartheid.
Fittingly, he was elected the first black president of South Africa in 1994 in the country’s first multiracial election. His top priority was to oversee the creation of a new constitution, guaranteeing equality for all. He also brought together disparate elements of the country, black and white, to address the grinding poverty and homelessness that afflicted his country.