Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

Mandela’s Fight Fueled Activism around the World

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

For today’s college students, the story of Nelson Mandela may be too current to appear in some curricula. But if you were in college when Mandela was imprisoned and making history in the ’70s and ’80s, you couldn’t help but know his story.

When I graduated college in 1977, the Vietnam War was over. We had nothing to protest — until Mandela. It was too early to talk about the shortcomings of civil rights in America. We were still living in the glow of 1965.

But there was one moral eyesore in the world that all good people could agree on: It was right — and necessary — to speak out against the evils of apartheid in South Africa.

At my graduation, I wore a white armband in protest and displayed it proudly as we marched to receive our diplomas.

“Divestiture” was the word of the day.

Who really knew what that meant? But it was fair to ask the question: What were Harvard and other major universities doing investing in South Africa? Why were we helping to further such a racist policy? And what were American corporations doing buying into a country that was so morally bankrupt?

Mandela gave boomers of a certain age a reason to stand up and take action.

For those in the U.S., Mandela was the heart and soul of the anti-apartheid movement and a moral compass on race.

Now could we use his example to get it right here in this country?

For many people, the connection between Mandela and the U.S. came from pop culture. Early hip-hop and rap wasn’t just about hooking up. One of hip-hop’s forebears, the late spoken word artist/poet/jazz vocalist Gil Scott-Heron, played in the dorms and on the campus radio, and his music provided the link. Some people know Scott-Heron for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” but Scott-Heron’s “Johannesburg,” for me, was the soundtrack to Mandela’s mission.

For me, the news of Mandela’s death opened up the flood gates for such memories.

For example, the American response to apartheid back then was divided between those who made the moral connection, and those who didn’t, most notably President Ronald Reagan, who hung on to his Cold War/anti-communist loyalties by backing the South African government.

When the call for sanctions overcame the call for divestment, Reagan was the road block, even when thousands of Blacks were killed and imprisoned in the apartheid state.

One of the great triumphs of the ’80s was the override of the Reagan veto on sanctions in 1986.

When you lose hope in the moral compass of the country, remember that bit of history. U.S. politicians, especially conservatives, found a way to do the right thing back then.

Four years after the U.S. sanctions passed, Mandela walked out of prison in 1990.

Spending 27 years in prison gives us a threshold to consider when we give up on our goals too soon.

What are people on campus fighting for currently? The DREAM Act? Student debt relief? Diverse admissions? Diverse staffing?

Mandela’s death is a reminder to all that there is a way to get to an answer — especially if you don’t give up too soon.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund ( Like him at or follow him on Twitter @emilamok

A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics
American sport has always served as a platform for resistance and has been measured and critiqued by how it responds in critical moments of racial and social crises.
Read More
A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics