Mandela Memories

Since the news of Mandela’s death this story from my life has kept looping through my mind.  I’ve hesitated to write this post because, to be honest, the story to some extent makes Mandela’s death “all about me.”  But since it keeps looping I feel like maybe there’s  something here that should be told.

It was 1985 and apartheid still reigned in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was in prison and Winnie Mandela — prior to revelations of wrongdoing — was his spokesperson in the outside world.  She was fierce, outspoken and one of our heroes.  Mandela himself was already becoming the stuff of legends and we so wanted him to be freed.

I was a fairly newly (ish) minted attorney.  I’d been volunteering with a nonprofit legal outfit called Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI).  One of the attorneys there was also deeply involved in the Free South Africa Movement.  They had worked out a plan that involved some people being arrested for protesting at the South African consulate and a big trial parading some well-known witnesses through in an attempt to (a) establish the necessity defense in connection with this cause and, more important (b) create a spotlight that would make people aware of the terrible conditions in South Africa to help build pressure on the U.S. government for a boycott.  He invited me to be on the defense team.  Articles about the trial can be seen here and here.

During voir dire it shocked me to hear juror after juror reveal that they didn’t read newspapers or watch the news and knew nothing about what was going on in South Africa.  My part was really small but I felt so honored to play a role in the week-long trial, at the end of which the necessity defense had been accepted, the cause had resulted in lots of media attention and the defendants were acquitted.  The following year the U.S. finally passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act.

The greatest moment of all for me came when I went out the next week to join the protesters marching outside the consulate and met some of the jurors on the protest line.  They said they’d been so moved by what they heard that they felt they had to join the protest!  It taught me so much about the compassion of the human heart — it’s a big part of my faith that we can bring peace to the world.

And all that fire and compassion and love was lit by Nelson Mandela.  RIP


12 thoughts on “Mandela Memories

  1. Hi Leigh,
    I was a counselor/pr person (a great place to work – I could do whatever I wanted to as long as assigned duties completed) with Twin Cities Opportunities Industrialization Center, an international nonprofit (OICs) founded in Philadelphia by Leon H. Sullivan in the 60’s.

    Dr. Sullivan was the first Black GM Board of Directors member and in 1977 created the Sullivan Principals on South Africa – a code of conduct for companies trading in South Africa. He was an absolutely wonderfully loving person. The Sullivan Principals were a stepping stone to US Congress and UN actions.

    I love that you discovered jury members on the picket lines.

    Nelson Mandela had/has so much to teach us about love and acceptance…and feeling comfortable doing what was right for him to. Thank you so much Leigh for helping us remember.
    Love Brenda

  2. Leigh,
    I’m glad you wrote this post. It’s inspiring to read about not only kind thoughts but actions as well. I doubt that Nelson Mandela would be remembered at all now if not for the actions of people like you.
    It sounds like you have always been part of making the world a better place, and I admire you for that. I was proud of the work I did in sustainability several years ago, and think actions matter a great deal. I also believe the stories we tell about the world are critical too. I enjoy reading your blog because you combine both action and contemplative stories.

    On a completely different topic, hope all the winter storms have been kind to you. Here in Chicago, we’ve gotten some cold and several inches of snow, but seem to be missing the worst of the winter weather. I’ve been thinking of you whenever I see weather forecasts talking about Louisville. You seem to have been battered by the weather.

    As always, hope you are well. it’s a pleasure to read your blogs.


    • Yes, the activism started for me in college — not as much as some of the gung ho folks I’ve known, but many years of always doing something… The weather has been unusually bad for these parts — more like November and December in Michigan. But really, having grown up in MI nothing we’ve had so far has seemed too bad to me even though they closed schools and businesses, etc. here. Every year I get a kick out of the level of panic over what we’d consider nothing “in the North”. Thanks for the kind thoughts!

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