Today as we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., comparisons between him and Nelson Mandela come quickly to mind. While we were in South Africa last year, Madiba, as Mandela is often affectionately called, became critically ill in July.
Memories of his leadership and courage began surfacing as the nation prepared for his coming death. In Cape Town I visited an exhibit featuring Mandela, which captured his role in the nation’s victory over oppression in pictures, videos, and taped speeches.
After touring the exhibit, which was in a large expanse in a busy public building, I stepped aside to watch people who were looking at the photos and videos and listening to Mandela’s voice. Many were there with their children; others were old enough to have memories of the struggle and life during apartheid. Most were black or Coloured, although a good number were white.
The thing that impressed me the most was the silence, from the youngest to the oldest. The power of Mandela’s words and the force of the visuals needed no commentary:
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
His voice, though now silent, still has the power to stir up hope for a better world.
MLK and Mandela shared beliefs about the power of forgiveness and nonviolence despite the tyranny, racism, and injustice they experienced. The remarkable story of Mandela’s leadership in bringing democracy to South Africa still brings hope to a continent and a world that longs for peace and justice. King’s dream of an America free from racial divisions and injustice inspires us to a better road toward freedom for all.
In movies about courageous men and women, the credits often start to roll just as dreams begin to be fulfilled. We walk out of the darkened theaters filled with hope. But in real life, the stories don’t end there. In his acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1993, Mandela said:
It will not be presumptuous of us if we also add . . . the name of another outstanding Nobel Peace Prize winner, the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He, too, grappled with and died in the effort to make a contribution to the just solution of the same great issues of the day which we have had to face as South Africans. We speak here of the challenge of the dichotomies of war and peace, violence and non-violence, racism and human dignity, oppression and repression, liberty and human rights, poverty and freedom from want.
I hope we are not too cynical or weary to take up that challenge. As we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. may we all embrace the ideal of peace and justice for all people in this nation and the world.
Dorothy Linthicum (@dslinthicum), instructor and program coordinator at the Center for the Ministry of Teaching, returned recently from a year of teaching in South Africa.