Nelson Mandela: Remembering the man and the Free Mandela/Free South Africa Movement

THE REV. HERBERT DAUGHTRY | 12/13/2013, 2:06 p.m.
I was at the John F. Kennedy Airport when Nelson and Winnie Mandela, along with members of the African National ...
Rev. Dr. Herbert Daughtry Leroy Applin

As part of the welcoming committee, I was at the John F. Kennedy Airport when Nelson and Winnie Mandela, along with members of the African National Congress (ANC), landed at the airport. We had been waiting for hours, waiting like children used to wait anticipating Santa Claus coming. We were eager and giddy, walking around nervously.

We were making vapid conversations about anything, trying to pass the time and remain calm. I remember the Rev. Jesse Jackson straightening my tie as though he wanted to make me presentable for the coming of Nelson Mandela.

Finally, someone sent the word that the plane was arriving. The news went through the crowd, and we began to line up in the places in which we were assigned. Then the plane landed. Everyone was tippy-toed and wide-eyed with bated breath. Then he stepped on the doorway to the plane. He was smiling broadly in his emendable smile. His eyes were small, squinting-like, but seemingly taking in the whole scene. His fist went into the air, making what we used to call the “Black Power” sign, which now signifies power. Slowly, he stepped down from the plane.

I, along with others, went forward to shake his hand. It was dreamlike. Was I dreaming? Was this real? At that point in time, we had been on the forefront for over 20 years of the Free South Africa-Free Mandela Movement. We had organized and participated in countless demonstrations, boycotts, rallies, workshops and civil disobedience.

In 1986, I led New York’s civil disobedience and encouraged my whole family—my wife and four children—to go to jail in front of the South African Mission in Manhattan. And now, the man whose name we had called countless times, there I was, in his presence, shaking his hand. We smiled, and my mind went blank after that. The next thing I knew, he was moving along the line, shaking the hands of others, still with that smile fixed on his face.

As a member of the welcoming committee, I was privileged to be in his entourage and/or be at most of the events where he was present, including a side room in City Hall where we had a private conversation with Harry Belafonte and my wife, Dr. Karen S. Daughtry. Mandela was profuse in his gratitude and appreciation for what we had done. I was present, seated on the front row, when he made his speech at City Hall.

I participated in the program when he spoke at the Riverside Church. I do want to express my appreciation to Dr. Wyatt Walker, the former chief of staff of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was he who used his influence to secure a place in the program for me.

Years later, when he returned to the United States again, I was at the White House during William Clinton’s presidency for his last reception in the USA.

I’m often asked to give my impression of Mandela. As I have mentioned, the smile, the face, the toughness and tenderness captivate me. There was this syntheses that he seemed to have achieved, being powerful but not too much, and humble, yet not too much, but a perfect balance. Her personified Rudyard Kipling’s classic stanza: “You can talk with crowds and keep your virtue/Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch/If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you/If all men count with you, but none too much.”