JOHANNESBURG: The speaker, one of the world’s most recognizable black leaders, was addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress when he quoted America’s top civil rights leader: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last,” Nelson Mandela said to a standing ovation, quoting words delivered in a speech whose 50th anniversary comes next week
Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. never met but they fought for the same cause at the same time on two continents. Mandela said he was prepared to die to see his dream of a society where blacks and whites were equal become reality. King was assassinated in 1968 while working for that same dream.
Mandela spent 27 years in prison during white racist rule in South Africa. Released in 1990, he went on to become president and shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with the white South African president, F.W. de Klerk. King won his Nobel Peace Prize nearly 30 years earlier.
Mandela traveled to the United States after he was released and he spoke at Yankee Stadium, telling the crowd that an unbreakable umbilical cord connected black South Africans and black Americans. There was a kinship between the two, Mandela wrote in his autobiography, inspired by such great Americans as W.E.B. Du Bois and King.
King, for his part, was unable to visit South Africa. In 1966 he applied for a visa after accepting invitations to speak to university students and to religious groups but the apartheid government refused to give him one. In December 1965, King delivered a speech in New York in which he denounced the white rulers of South Africa as “spectacular savages and brutes” and called on the U.S. and Europe to boycott the nation, a tactic the West eventually embraced and that helped end white rule.
“In South Africa today, all opposition to white supremacy is condemned as communism, and in its name, due process is destroyed,” King said. “A medieval segregation is organized with 20th century efficiency and drive. A sophisticated form of slavery is imposed by a minority upon a majority which is kept in grinding poverty. The dignity of human personality is defiled; and world opinion is arrogantly defied.”
King and Mandela were inspirational symbols for huge freedom struggles happening in both countries, said Clay Carson, a Stanford professor and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute.
“I think both of them were moral leaders. Both were people who had very strong principles, stuck to those principles even in the face of criticisms, and in Mandela’s case being in prison for such a long time,” said Carson.
King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, attended Mandela’s 1994 inauguration as South Africa’s first black president. She was on the podium as Mandela gave his speech at a celebration. “I looked over to her as I made reference to her husband’s immortal words … ‘Free at last! Free at last!'” Mandela wrote in his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom.”
Mandela again quoted from the “I Have a Dream” speech — “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last” — during his 1994 address to the U.S. Congress. Mandela, 95, has been hospitalized since June, much of that time in critical condition.