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Remembering Nelson Mandela and Detroit

Not many people remember it now, but there was a day in the remarkable life of Nelson Mandela when he came to Detroit. The Motor City went, predictably, wild over him. They filled Tiger Stadium to see him at 10:00 on a Thursday night in June.

He was welcomed by Mayor Coleman Young, and enthusiastically hugged Rosa Parks. He met stars of Motown, politicians and labor leaders, and visited workers on the line at a Ford assembly plant.

How many people know that Nelson Mandela, leader of a revolution, international icon of freedom, once went to an assembly line in Dearborn and told workers, “I am your comrade."

What makes all this seem even more like a fairy tale is that this all happened barely four months after he got out of the hellhole of a South African prison, where he had been held 27 years. He slept on the ground, was kept in solitary and suffered from essentially untreated tuberculosis. Yet somehow he not only survived, but became a living symbol of hope.

Even before he left prison, it was clear that his example had set events in motion that would lead to the toppling of apartheid and his own election as president of an entirely new South Africa.

Mandela’s life was, in fact, almost too fantastic for Hollywood. His less than 24 hours in Detroit, for example. The morning after his late-night stadium rally, he arose before six, in his suite at the Renaissance Center, and went out for a two-mile jog. He waved to bewildered and stunned people, asked what Hart Plaza was called, and signed an autograph or two. He was out there for nearly an hour, in a town he would later call “absolutely delightful.“

I wasn’t living in Michigan when Nelson Mandela came to town, but I watched it on television. Earlier this year, I was thinking about Mandela, oddly enough, as the city spiraled into state control, and ultimately bankruptcy.  

Mandela was already an old man in his 70s when he came here, prematurely aged by the horrors of Robben Island. I thought at the time he would be lucky to live a few years. Yet he endured.

Many of the people who embraced him in Detroit on that magical day in 1990 are gone. Coleman Young and Rosa Parks are long dead. The stadium when he spoke, itself an iconic place, is now a vacant lot.

Yet until yesterday, Nelson Mandela, a man who grew up in a village so primitive it didn’t even have roads, lived on. He evolved from lawyer to revolutionary to political prisoner of conscience. Later, he would go on to “normal” politics, serve as president of a democracy, and cope with the criticism that entailed.

But I can’t help wonder if there isn’t a lesson in his life for all of us.  He had little reason to hope when he was forgotten in prison, and no reason to imagine becoming what he became, and yet he did what he did.

While in Detroit, Mandela told workers, “You are my flesh and blood.”  I think he would have felt that they and their city can do it too. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.