On the 20th anniversary of the Rothko Chapel, The Carter-Menil Human rights Foundation, founded in 1986, granted the newly released Nelson Mandela the special Human rights Rothko Chapel award in Houston Texas. The award was established to honor and emulate the spirit of Oscar Romero who was assassinated in 1980 while saying mass. These Rothko Chapel awards recognized individuals who risked their lives to denounce violations of human rights.
That day, Mandela received a joint award from former President Jimmy Carter and the former human rights advocate and philanthropist Dominique De Menil. I anchored the PBS show which featured the event. Mandela was a tall, quiet, regal yet extremely humble man. When he walked inside the chapel, there was total silence, and then suddenly, those lucky enough to be inside began clapping loudly for they knew they were among the lucky ones to witness history.
These last few days, almost everyone has praised Mandela for his character and his achievements and it should be so. There are still a few of those who feel he doesn’t deserve such adulation, such as former Vice President Cheney who called him a terrorist. The fact is he was even in the US Terror watch list until 2008. Why? He was a militant in fighting apartheid. It is interesting how over time, this so called “terrorist” became one of the most powerful figures in peace making, social justice and liberation.
“I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by whites.” — Mandela said in a statement to the court during the Rivonia trial, April, 20, 1964
Mandela forgave his detractors, united his country, didn’t allow himself to be vengeful, prejudiced or angry. Instead of striking back, he turned the other cheek. Instead of seething with rage, he studied and became highly disciplined and focused in his struggle. The fact that he was imprisoned for fighting the insane, inhumane and cruel system of apartheid didn’t make him a terrorist, it made him a man for all times.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” — Mandela said in a statement to the court during the Rivonia trial, April 20, 1964.
There are certain values that stand the test of time. Whatever he did was effective in changing not only South Africa’s apartheid system, but in waking up millions of others around the world to believe in his cause. He and his followers could not accept a system that denigrated one race over the other. Blacks for instance who constituted two-thirds of the population, were restricted to 7.5% of the land. Whites, who made up one-fifth of the population, were given 92.5 %. This is just one of the many injustices practiced by the confused and ignorant creators of apartheid. Mandela believed in the power of his own people and trusted they would stand by him. He also understood his countrymen needed to know the truth and then needed to forgive and move on from the scourge of apartheid.
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us … We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” —
Mandela was one of the few leaders of the world who walked the talk.