Activists, civic leaders, and humanitarians convened in Northeastern University’s Blackman Auditorium on Thursday afternoon to honor the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid icon who died last month at the age of 95.
The 90-minute ceremony featured a video collage from Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and his subsequent visit to Boston; a trio of moving performances by the Boston Children’s Chorus; and poignant remarks from more than half a dozen friends, admirers, and protégés.
The event was co-sponsored by the College of Social Sciences and Humanities; the School of Law; and South Africa Partners, a Boston-based nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering relationships between the U.S. and South Africa. Mary Tieso, its executive director, served as the emcee.
Speakers, ranging from state Rep. Byron Rushing to Rev. Nancy Taylor of Boston’s Old South Church, described Mandela as a compassionate leader and highlighted his indelible connection to the city and to Northeastern. The university awarded Mandela an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in absentia in May of 1988, while he served his 27-year jail sentence. On June 23, 1990, just four months after he was released from prison, the man they called Madiba addressed some 250,000 supporters who filled the Hatch Shell on the Charles River Esplanade, telling them, “I am especially grateful to you, the people of Massachusetts, for helping to lead the fight in this country for democracy in South Africa.” Three years later, Northeastern law professor Margaret Burnham was appointed by her mentor to an international human rights commission to investigate alleged human rights violations within the African National Congress.
“We here in Boston have a special relationship with Madiba,” noted Burham, the director of Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. Like Mandela, she said, “We must realize that none of us is free so long as many of us are without adequate education, without adequate healthcare, without personal safety, without food, without a reliable and inclusive democracy. On Mandela Day, which will soon come, and indeed on every day, let us honor the Mandela within us” by working to make the world a better place.
Lenna Assaf is doing her part. After working as an English teacher while studying abroad in South Africa, she connected with City Year Boston, the education-based nonprofit organization. Today, she tutors children at the Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood.
“I serve with City Year to carry on Mandela’s legacy, to live his ideas, and contribute to making this world a better place for all its citizens,” Assaf said. “While Madiba may be gone, I know he lives within me.”
Mandela and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick share more than a few social and political traits. According to Tieso, both men “come from loving families and humble beginnings and saw the law as a pillar of democracy that must be nurtured and protected.”
In his remarks, Patrick marveled at Mandela’s limitless capacity for love and reconciliation, saying that, “leading by love might be the most powerful kind of leadership and Mandela might be the best modern example.”
“We could use more of that message right now,” he added, “with so much hurt in the midst of so much joy, so much despair in the midst of so much hope.”
Hope was a recurring theme throughout the ceremony. Flanked by the U.S. and South African flags, the Boston Children’s Chorus sang, “Can you see? Look into my eyes. Can you feel? My hand is reaching. Give us hope and we’ll show you the way.”