ATLANTA (AP) — Several religious, civil rights and political leaders from Georgia said the death of former South African President and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela marked the end of an era in the realm of social justice.
Mandela served as South Africa’s first black president between 1994 and 1999 after being imprisoned for 27 years. Ill most of the year, Mandela died Thursday at age 95.
Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church — where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached — called Mandela’s death the end of an era, and remembered standing in his cell on Robben Island during a visit to South Africa.
“It was just deeply moving and humbling to think that this man had moved from prisoner, to president to world citizen,” he said. “As I stood there, I remembered there was no way for him to know how this would all end,” he said. “He reminds us that the work is difficult, victories are often delayed, but ultimately justice does prevail.”
Rep. John Lewis, D-GA — whose district represents a portion of metro Atlanta — was a fixture in the civil rights movement and said the struggle for social justice in South Africa and Selma, Ala. are inseparable. Lewis called Mandela a kindred spirit to social justice initiatives worldwide, and compared him to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr.
“He must be looked upon as one of the foremost activists of our time, one of the most committed and dedicated human beings to human freedom, and the liberation of not just the physical body — but of the mind and spirit of people,” he said.
Mandela was praised the world over for showing dignity and grace in the face of seemingly insurmountable oppression. Georgia leaders said Mandela’s demeanor when he was freed after nearly three decades should be seen as a guiding principle.
“Nelson Mandela’s courage in the face of terrible injustice helped dismantle apartheid, and his determined leadership guided South Africa through a process of reconciliation that at one time seemed impossible,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-GA. He added that Mandela’s legacy will be one of dignity, forgiveness and profound dedication.
CEO of the Dr. Martin Luther King Center, Bernice King, called Mandela a “great lion” of African liberation.
“Nelson Mandela’s life and leadership exemplified the highest courage, dignity and dedication to human liberation,” she said.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said Mandela was in a class of his own as a leader who changed a nation and the world.
“As an undergraduate student at Howard University, I had the opportunity to meet President Mandela when he visited the campus in 1994. I was profoundly moved by his strength, dignity and grace,” he said, adding that a photograph from that day still hangs in his office.
Lewis praised Mandela for his humility and quiet assertion that “we should leave this planet a little better than we found it.” He recalled meeting Mandela during a visit with other congressional representatives and being caught off guard when the former South African president told him that he knew who he was.
“I felt unworthy to be standing in his presence, to tell you the truth,” Lewis said. “But, I realized I was standing in the presence of greatness, really. He was like a saint — he was like a living saint among us.”
Some gathered in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park on Thursday night to leave flowers and other mementos at the base of a stone and metal sculpture erected in 1987 in honor of Mandela, and prior to his release from prison.
Lucien Devoux, who grew up in South Africa, said that for as much heartache as Mandela’s death brings, it also offers a sense of closure.
“For me personally I think in a lot of ways there is some peace that has come with this,” he said. “And I think the time that we at least got to say goodbye, which has been months, that has really helped us to come to terms with his passing,” he said.
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