The South African leader’s life had a far-reaching impact on U.S. civil rights progress
By Corey Arvin
As the world mourns and remembers the struggles and triumphs of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, community leaders in Southern California reflect on the profound impact Mandela had on their lives – how he shaped their perspectives and empowered the U.S. to improve civil rights locally and abroad.
To call local civil rights activist Sylvia Martin-James a fervent supporter of Mandela would be considered an understatement. The former school teacher and Riverside community leader was forever in awe of Mandela’s life and his unflinching opposition to the devastation of apartheid. She lamented his imprisonment, but also celebrated his subsequent release from prison in 1990 while she focused on advancing civil rights in California. Martin-James is perhaps best known for supporting the Grier Pavilion project at Riverside City Hall – a monument opened in 2008 to honor civil rights activists Barnett and Jean Grier. Martin-James helped to raise more than $150,000 for the project to be developed.
Over the year, Martin-James has accumulated a collection of photographs, papers and memorabilia as she honored Mandela’s life, even travelling to Capetown, South Africa twice to witness him receive awards for his leadership. Her esteem for this collection is deeper than the box of memories of Mandela she has built over the last two decades. After receiving word of Mandela’s passing at the age of 95 on Dec. 5, she spared no time in reaching out to Black Voice News to share her unique experience with following Mandela’s life.
“There is a sadness is losing [Mandela], but he is an important figure to the world who will always be remembered,” said Martin-James.
With Mandela’s life behind him, Martin-James travels to see him will cease too, though she remembers him with fondness and respect for his fight to lead South Africa’s resurgence and promote global peace.
Throughout the 20th century, many parallels have been drawn to compare South Africa’s challenge to white-minority oppression, and African-Americans’ struggles for inclusion and social progress in the U.S. At times, these experiences were inseparable comparisons, which inspired many civil rights leaders, causing them to sympathize with South Africa and resonate with the anti-apartheid movement.
V.P. Franklin, PhD, a University of California, Riverside (UCR) Presidential Chair, is a Distinguished Professor of History and Education and Editor of The Journal of African American History. Franklin has studied anti-apartheid and published dozens of scholarly articles on African-American history. Franklin points to the Sharpville Massacre in April 1960 as one of the most significant events that demonstrated the similarities between the civil rights protests in the U.S. and the anti-apartheid protests in South Africa.
“Mandela was jailed in 1962 and was not in a position to influence the protests here. However, the crackdown on [African National Congress] (ANC) leaders and supporters in the 1980s sparked a demand in the U.S. for an end of violence in South Africa and freedom for political prisoners, including Mandela. The Free South Africa Movement put economic sanctions and freedom for political prisoners on the agenda of the U.S. government and legislation was passed – over Ronald Reagan's veto – in 1986. The economic sanctions endorsed by the UN and other nations forced the white leaders to enter into dialogue with Mandela and the ANC,” said Franklin.
According to Franklin, important lessons from the apartheid and U.S. civil rights era have been learned and also reshaped democracy.
“I believe the United States learned lessons in the 1960s about the need to end legalized white supremacy and the dehumanization of people of color in American society. The U.S. became a multicultural democracy as a result of the civil rights campaigns and the anti-apartheid struggle led to the formation of a multicultural democracy in South Africa. Both struggles served as models for how previously oppressed minority (or majority) populations can be incorporated into the larger society through peaceful means, although not without organized protest and support from people and organizations internationally.”