The radical histories of Mandela and MLK

Updated

Nelson Mandela, then acting as a defense lawyer, during the Treason Trial in Johannesburg, South Africa, 1961.
Nelson Mandela, then acting as a defense lawyer, during the Treason Trial in Johannesburg, South Africa, 1961.
Photo by Ian Berry/Magnum Photos
Martin Luther King Jr. never got to see himself canonized as a saint. When he was struck by an assassin’s bullet in 1968, much of the country despised him as an anti-war troublemaker who kept fighting for civil rights even as the movement faced a growing backlash. His emergence as a largely sanitized and unimpeachable symbol of American freedom embraced by both sides of the political spectrum would come decades later.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95, managed to survive not just 27 years in prison but the very struggle against apartheid that made him a legend. As Gary Younge wrote in The Nation, Mandela, like King, became a figure so synonymous with racial equality that no one could afford to hate him publicly without questioning the principle itself. Yet the canonization of King and Mandela inevitably seeks to expunge from history the memory of the radicals they once were.

Make no mistake, they were radicals. They were seeking nothing less than a fundamental reordering of the societies they were born into. King and Mandela somehow found within themselves the ability to love those who hated and brutalized them. King did it through his commitment to nonviolence, Mandela through a commitment to multiracial democracy that survived nearly 30 years of imprisonment.

As Mandela stood in the dock in 1964 being railroaded by a racist court that criminalized his opposition to government by white supremacy, he declared:

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.

Many remember this quote, but the speech itself is 30 minutes long, an eloquent, detailed indictment of the apartheid regime delivered by a man–an attorney, no less–about to be condemned.

King embraced non-violence from the beginning. Mandela participated in nonviolent action at first, then supported guerilla warfare against the apartheid government in the aftermath of violent repression of the anti-apartheid movement. He did not renounce violence until after his 1990 release from prison. In the context of the Cold War, the communist label was affixed not just to the murderous despotism of Stalin but any government effort to materially improve the lives of poor people. Both in the United States and South Africa, the cause of racial equality was once portrayed as little more than a front for communism. Mandela did make common cause with communists who opposed apartheid, and the Soviet Union supported the African National Congress, but it’s worth questioning why the U.S. took so long to try and compel an end to the regime.

As Mandela said, black people didn’t need communism to help them figure out that apartheid was evil. Devoted to the cause of anti-Communism, however, many heroes of the American conservative movement acquitted themselves poorly on the issue of South African apartheid. At times, conservatives denounced apartheid but drew equivalences between the regime and those seeking to end it. For others, if they were not pro-apartheid, they still refused to endorse white supremacy but cast the movement as led by Soviet stooges. The collapse of the Soviet Union diminished anti-communist hysteria and helped make Mandela’s release possible. 

Leaders share their memories of Mandela
Leaders share their memories of Mandela

For years, the United States saw the African National Congress as a terrorist organization and the reportedly CIA even assisted in Mandela’s capture. The late North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms attempted in 1985 to filibuster a bill instituting sanctions against South Africa and demanding Mandela’s release. 

Helms was joined in his opposition to the bill by Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, the conservative icon who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and whose preference would have been to lift the embargo on selling arms to the apartheid regime. Also voting no was South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat turned Republican who once ran on a segregationist presidential ticket. If there had been “100 more like Jesse Helms” in the Senate, as Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz recently wished, the opposition would have succeeded. On the House side, the bill was opposed by a Wyoming Republican named Dick Cheney, who of course later went on to become vice president of the United States. Cheney said in 2000 that he didn’t regret his vote because “the ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization.”

President Ronald Reagan, who, as Slate’s Dave Weigel notes, drew glib equivalences between the anti-apartheid movement and the regime, vetoed the sanctions bill, only to have his veto overturned by Congress. It’s unclear how much Reagan himself understood what was going on, having once said that the apartheid regime had “eliminated the segregation we once had in our own country” but he nevertheless opposed a tougher response to the apartheid regime.

According to a 1985 Washington Post article, shortly before Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, William F. Buckley, the intellectual godfather of the American right and founder of National Review–who defended segregation and smeared King– said that he did not “approve of apartheid” but that “immediate integration must be rejected by all realistic men as suicidal.” In 1990, Buckley wondered if Mandela’s release would “one day be likened to the arrival of Lenin at the Finland Station in 1917.” Echoing Buckley, The Wall Street Journal editorialized Thursday that the man who bid farewell to his freedom by reiterating his commitment to multiracial democracy was  ”a would-be Lenin” who left Robben Island “an African Vaclav Havel,” suggesting that Mandela might not have been capable of leading South Africa through a peaceful transition to democracy had the apartheid regime not imprisoned him.

Nevertheless, opposition to apartheid in the United States had become broad based by the late 1980s, with only the most recalcitrant right-wingers still clinging to anti-communism as an excuse not to act. Among the Republicans who voted to override Reagan’s veto of the sanctions bill were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. Among those who voted to sustain it were Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. Both men remain in the Senate today. Reagan faced a rebellion in his own party over apartheid–although the only no votes in the Senate were cast by Republicans, most GOP senators also voted to overturn Reagan’s veto.

The point of remembering all this is not mere point-scoring. It is to remember that sometimes the radicals are correct, that in the heat of the moment, movements for justice can be easily caricatured by those with authority as threats to public safety, and those seeking basic rights and dignity as monstrous villains. And then after the radicals win, we try to make them safe and useless to future radicals by pretending our beloved secular saints were never radical at all.

It’s tempting to pretend we’ve all always agreed about Mandela, or about racial equality, or about South African apartheid. It would avoid awkwardness or hostility to join together in mutual admiration and mourning for a figure who was indispensible in so many senses of the word, without recalling those who stood against him.

Mandela believed in forgiveness, but he also believed in truth and reconciliation. And the truth is that many self-proclaimed champions of individual freedom in the United States refused to champion the individual freedom of black people in South Africa and at home.

We should never forget that people did, in fact, hate Nelson Mandela and opposed the cause he gave his life to. The opponents only grew silent after Mandela and his movement won. As Weigel notes, it would be very strange to pretend that Mandela was somehow above politics, when politics was the means by which he achieved so much, became so admired, and will be so missed.

Honoring Mandela Thursday, President Barack Obama said, “We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again.” But if we do, chances are many of us will deride them as a villain long before we recognize them as a hero.

Nelson Mandela

The radical histories of Mandela and MLK

Updated