I had the privilege of attending two of several events last week, held to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. The courageous story of the “Little Rock Nine” as they are known, is one I learned early in my youth as a resident of Little Rock, Arkansas. The high school I attended was opened the same year as the Central crisis, one where the affluent white citizens of Little Rock could send their children in attempt to avoid inevitable progress. By the time I attended in the early 1990’s, all public schools had long been integrated, the legacy of those nine brave students paving the way for my generation and ones to come. This is part one of a two part post.
Sunday evening, I attended the opening of exhibitions at the Clinton Presidential Center. Mandela: The Journey to Ubuntu, is presented by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The Clinton Presidential Center’s collection of African artifacts, as well as some from President Clinton’s personal collection, made up the exhibit, Art of Africa: One Continent, Limitless Vision.
During President Clinton’s opening remarks he referenced many recent events in our country, from the rise ethnic nationalism to taking care of our Caribbean neighbors devastated by recent hurricanes, many of whose ancestry is traced back to Africa as a result from the slave trade. He stated that we must revisit the history of our relationship with Africa and went on to say, “Both exhibits are designed to make us think about what we owe to Africa, what we did to Africa, what they have done for us, and what are we going to do now?” He also stated that African Americans are “the legacy of our greatest sin and offer us our greatest promise to redeem what it really means to be an American.”
The second portion of his talk fondly recalled his friendship with South African President Nelson Mandela. “We all generally know he was a great man who was confined for 27 years,” he began. “He came out and instead of being hateful, he invited his jailers to his inauguration, and even more important, he put the the leaders of the political parties who kept him in prison for 27 years in his cabinet. He lived by the spirit of what is in the Zulu language called Ubuntu. In English, it means, ‘I am because you are.'” Clinton continued, “We like to think we exist separate from others, but we don’t. The meaning of life is in our relationship to others. Mandela embodied this philosophy in a lot of different ways.”
President Clinton went on to tell other personal stories about their friendship and projects over the years, including their successful efforts to raise money for medicines for patients with AIDS and other infectious diseases. He concluded with a story that is more relevant to our current political climate. When he once asked Mandela about if he hated those who had imprisoned him for so many years, Mandela said initially, yes. However, he realized “They could take away everything, but I would have to give them my mind and my heart, I decided not to give them away.” Mandela had the insight, “If I hated them, I would still be their prisoner, so I let it go.”
At the conclusion of his talk, Clinton stated about Mandela, “I am grateful that he reserved his anger for things that actually hurt other people, I am grateful that he still believed to the last breath he took, that in the end the end we could be reconciled. He himself took an African tribal approach to the horrible wrongs inflicted on his people with the Truth and Reconciliation Council. He didn’t want to put anyone in jail, he didn’t want to kill anyone. He wanted people to tell the truth, because the truth will set us free, and then we go forward together.”
President Nelson Mandela was the embodiment of Ubuntu. May we all have such a legacy.
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