What Nelson Mandela meant, and still means, to Barack Obama

As a college sophomore, Obama took on apartheid, his first foray into political activism. Nelson Mandela has been one of his guiding lights ever since. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama turns from the podium after speaking in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, about the death of Nelson Mandela.

"I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that he set, and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him.”

With those words, in a tribute to Nelson Mandela delivered just minutes after news broke that the iconic South African leader had passed away, President Obama captured what Mr. Mandela meant to him.

America’s first black president included himself among the “countless millions” who drew inspiration from Mandela’s journey from “a prisoner to a president,” and his central role in the undoing of his country’s apartheid regime of racial segregation.

Mr. Obama’s own journey of self-discovery and activism flowed from the anti-apartheid divestment movement, which he joined in 1981 as a sophomore at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

In his 1995 memoir “Dreams from my Father,” Obama writes of contacting representatives of the African National Congress to speak on campus, drafting letters to faculty, printing flyers, arguing strategy. Through that, he discovered the power of his own voice.

“I noticed that people had begun to listen to my opinions,” Obama writes. “It was a discovery that made me hungry for words. Not words to hide behind but words that could carry a message, support an idea.”

Obama remembers imagining that with the right words, everything could change – “South Africa, the lives of ghetto kids just a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world.”

In his remarks Thursday, Obama recalled studying Mandela’s words and writings as he prepared for his first foray into political activism. And nine years later, he took inspiration from Mandela’s newfound freedom after 27 years in prison.

“The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears,” Obama said.

Obama met Mandela once, in 2005, in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. Obama was then a freshly minted senator from Illinois, and he took a detour while in Georgetown to see his idol, who was staying at the Four Seasons. Mandela was only vaguely aware of who Obama was, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Only one photograph of the meeting exists – a picture taken by an aide, David Katz.

“In some ways the picture parallels their relationship: symbolism overtaking reality,” wrote Kathleen Hennessey in the LA Times in June of this year, as Obama prepared to travel to South Africa.

Since Obama's election as president, he and Mandela spoke by phone several times, but they never met. The former South African president was too ill to see Obama during last summer’s visit. As a senator in 2006, Obama visited South Africa, but Mandela was unwell and they didn’t meet.  

In June 2011, first lady Michelle Obama, the Obamas’ daughters, Malia and Sasha, and Mrs. Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, met with Mandela privately at his home while on a 10-day trip to Africa. The photo of the meeting shows Mandela signing his latest book for Mrs. Obama.

But perhaps the tenuous personal connection between Obama and Mandela isn’t the point. Obama also draws inspiration from the legacy of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated when Obama was six years old, and from President Lincoln – two men who paved the way for Obama’s election as president.

Busts of both men sit in the Oval Office. Obama also has a framed program from the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Last month, Obama held a White House screening of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” the new film based on Mandela’s 1994 biography. Shortly after Mandela’s death was announced, Obama issued a proclamation ordering American flags to be lowered to half-staff until sunset on Monday, Dec. 9.

Friday morning, White House press secretary Jay Carney announced that the president and first lady would travel to South Africa next week to “pay their respects to the memory of Nelson Mandela and to participate in memorial events.”

The funeral is expected to be on Sunday, Dec. 15. But the eulogies began as soon as Mandela’s passing was known.

“We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” Obama said Thursday. “So it falls to us as best we can to forward the example that he set: to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love; to never discount the difference that one person can make; to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice.”

In his final line, Obama echoed King as he honored Mandela:

“For now, let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived, a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice. May God bless his memory and keep him in peace.”

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