Remembering Nelson Mandela on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday

It’s taken me weeks to get to this: Mandela. The irony of it coming on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday isn’t lost on me… though, some might argue it’s not ironic at all. Don’t ask Alanis Morissette about that–only adds to the confusion, and irony. Nelson Mandela, shared many things in common with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr; both men stood for very similar principles and beliefs, in different places and times, and both men had an enormous impact on my life.

I was born in 1963, in northern California. I grew up in the shadow of the Civil Rights movement. I missed it by a wink. I was alive when much of it was going down, and when much of it was at its height, but I was too young to notice or care, in an active or meaningful way.  By all accounts, and my own memories, I was very observant and tuned into my surroundings, starting at a young age. I recall the changes and the “hippy scenes” in San Francisco, from the few trips I made into the city with my grandparents and father. I remember that there were blacks and there were whites, and they did not mix. I remember, as clear and sharp as if it happened far less than nearly 46 years ago, the day I was driving with my father in Richmond, CA and was struck by how many black people I saw there.  Like the times, the words they were a changin’: “colored,” “negro,” and far more nefarious terms were used, when I was a child. The words, is where this memory sharpens.

Ok, I was a little older than this...

Ok, I was a little older than this…

I was about five, maybe six years old. There were no seat belts, no laws about car seats; when driving somewhere, we bounced from front to back and side to side, depending on our parent’s patience and our ability to behave, on any given day. That day, a sunny one as I recall, in what would have been 1968 or 1969, I was leaning on the front seat, arms folded and watching my father, chattering away to him. We were driving somewhere, who knows where; that memory is gone. But I remember him listening to me and engaging in a generally amused manner. Then I said it: “Daddy, why are there so many niggers here?”

If it were a movie, this is when the soundtrack would play something haunting, alarming perhaps. The camera would pan from child’s face to parents, and back again– the moment when innocence is rocked.  I don’t remember if he stopped the car, or pulled it over; he must have. I do remember that he slapped me. My father slapped my face, and said: “Don’t ever use that word again!” And as my I began to cry, he added:  “It’s a disgusting word.”  In the movie, as it has in my memory, that slap would echo.

I knew not to cry loudly, because I knew from the slap that I’d done something very wrong. I was stunned, shocked even. My father did not hit us or spank much, as I recall.  I don’t have many memories of him angry.  But this day, this moment, has stood out like a bright flash of image, which floats into my thoughts for forty-five years now. I don’t remember much of what he said after that moment. I remember that he went on to explain that Negros were people, like me, and I should never speak about them or look at them in such a negative way again. I don’t remember him soothing me, so much as explaining. I could feel his intensity fill that car, though, as I sat back in my seat and listened.

For the record, I don’t remember having any blatantly negative thoughts or perceptions about African Americans, when I was  child. I was aware that people looked different and were treated different. I saw that around me. I was a fair skinned little girl with bright red hair and freckles. My world was golden, and I only knew that it wasn’t that way for everyone. But, as a small child I didn’t think about the inequity of that, nor did I associate it with my skin color.  I’m sure I saw the news from time to time, as I have memories of the Vietnam War and the moon walk, on our television. But, I don’t recall associating the word Nigger with anything bad. I said it with utter innocence… or ignorance, depending on how you interpret child development. Today, the word is loaded with ugly, and don’t bother explaining that it depends on who says it. It’s ugly, and from my perspective, it’s ugly coming out of the mouth of whoever says it.  It’s never funny, it’s never hip, it’s never ethically or comedically right; it’s just ugly.  It may have taken a slap for me to learn that, but it never took as second reminder.

"Forced busing" brought segregation to schools in the Boston area ... Image:

“Forced busing” brought segregation to schools in the Boston area … Image:

As I got older I felt a sense of loss in having missed such a huge and meaningful time in our history. Perhaps I associated it with my father, believing it must have meant something to him. He was killed in 1973, in a car accident, and while I have this memory about a word and a slap, I really don’t know what he believed in. Still, the Civil Rights movement followed me throughout my youth, the stories of the marches, the Freedom Riders, the Sit-ins and the bravery that was demonstrated, left me feeling like I’d just missed something truly historical. My high school, an hour south of Boston, was one of the locations where “forced busing” was implemented, wherein black students in Boston were bused to our school district, to assist in educational equality. I remember thinking it was right for these students to come to our school, but years later, I would wonder what that must have felt like for the kids who had to travel so far from their homes, just to get the education we took for granted. They had host families in our town, because to participate in extracurricular activities meant to stay over-night. The hardships must have been enormous, on both the students and their families… but as a careless care-free kid, I didn’t get that.

This is the same button I had. I gave it to my daughter, years later.

This is the same button I had. I gave it to my daughter, years later.

In college however, I became aware of the growing dissension in South Africa, and the plight of a man named Nelson Mandela. I read about him, and I became familiar with the issues of Apartheid. It looked like the Civil Rights movement I’d missed and pined about for so long. How stupid I was, and yet how well meaning. I threw myself into the movement to free Mandela and end Apartheid, as so many college students did in the 1980s. I went to marches; I wrote letters to the South African government, to our government, to musical groups who were still performing in South Africa, and to companies who we thought should divest their interests in South Africa, until Apartheid was abolished. I wore a pin that said I supported this movement, pretty much everywhere I went, for several years. I never put my life on the line; I didn’t suffer; frankly, my efforts were meager.  I didn’t face anything other than some disdain from those who disagreed, but I felt like I was at least doing something, and not just sitting back and watching.

As a grown woman, I look back on my efforts in college as well meaning, but selfish as well. I was unconsciously driven by that desire to not miss another historically meaningful event. As much as I believed in the effort, and I did, my involvement also filled a sense of purpose that I had longed for.  That slap was still in my thoughts.  I’m proud that I was involved, but I always was aware that the specter of my youth, and my father’s message, drove me.  I felt passionately as I wrote those letters and marched and wore my pin. I wanted so much to believe that maybe my efforts held some weight… and I embraced the man behind the movement, Nelson Mandela, fully and whole heartedly. I believed in him, his life and his right to freedom.

But my life went on. I finished grad school; I got married; I moved away. I wore my pin, but I wrote fewer letters. I went to marches, when they were convenient, I refused to buy things from anyone who supported S. Africa’s politics, and Mandela stayed in prison. The day Mandela was freed, the day he walked out of prison: February 11, 1990, was five days before I delivered my first baby, my only daughter. I was in false labor for days; I was exhausted and anxious to be a mother. But that day, February 11, I cared about only one thing. I was glued to the television, tears streaming down my face,  as I watched this man I had come to care so much about, walked out of prison for the first time. It was surreal and astonishing. It was an important day for all the world, not just South Africa.

In the fall of 2007 I traveled to South Africa, to visit my daughter. She was spending the first half of her senior year in high school with The Traveling School, in Southern Africa. She was also applying to colleges and the program’s computers had been stolen. I flew to Cape Town, knowing that she and I would have 36 hours to get all of her applications finished and submitted. I planned to spend the rest of my two weeks, seeing the South Africa of my dreams. On my first morning, my luggage lost in transit, and wearing clothes I’d washed in the sink, I headed out into Cape Town. It was a humbling and shocking day in every way, and it left me a changed person. As I stepped out into the street that day, I was struck for the first time in my life, by what it feels like to truly be a “minority.” My hotel room was in a business district, and for as far as I could see, I was the only white person. I walked for blocks and blocks in a sea of dark black faces. I eventually saw a few other white faces, but it was the first time in my life that I had a first hand inkling, of what the “movements” I’d felt attached to, were about.

IMG_3639I admit it: I felt vulnerable. I felt anxious and scared. I began to question whether perhaps I was racist, and had never known it. All those years of believing in a principle, and here I was scared because I was white, in a black world. The irony was like a second slap across my face. And then, a truly amazing thing happened:  I made my way to the waterfront, and found myself at the ferry terminal to Robben Island, the place that houses the prison where Mandela (lovingly referred to as Madiba) was imprisoned. I was told that the tickets were sold out for two weeks, but I begged for one spot on the boat, determined to see the place I’d thought and written about for so many years, in my youth. The lovely woman selling tickets, relented and gave me a ticket, amused by my determination. In line, I noticed a group of African school girls, in their matching uniforms, and eating ice cream cones. They were so sweet, and I asked to take their photo. They allowed me to, and then asked if they could see the photos on my camera. They were taken with a few pictures of my teenage son, and we all became fast friends.

The girls invited me to ride with them for the day.  I sat with them on the boat, and road on the school bus with them when we arrived on the island. I told them about my life, and they shared details of theirs. On Robben Island, tours are given exclusively by former prisoners, and it is a truly moving experience. The stories of Apartheid are very different, when told by those who lived it. Our guide had spent 13 years on Robben Island, starting when he was 18, for being out on the street without his identification papers. He had known Madiba personally. It was an honor to hear his stories, and again, I was the only white person in our group. At one point, the bus stopped to show us the leper’s graveyard on the island, and our guide asked the girls to sing the South African song of freedom, Shosholoza, to me and they did. Their voices were shy at first, then then their teachers began to chant and trill their voices and the girls sang louder and prouder, standing and surrounding me. I was completely overcome with emotion, and a few of the girls put their arms around me as I cried. (Shosholoza)

As we toured the island, we saw where Madiba had labored and lost is much of his eyesight. We visited the tiny, 6’x4′ cell where he spend more than 18 years. We walked in a group of about 40 and our guide told us stories, talking to us individually and as a group, as we walked. At some point, he and I were talking and I told him how moving all of this was, having believed in and supported the Anti-Apartheid movement when I was in college. Suddenly he stopped, there in the garden and took my hands. “I want to thank you for what you did,” he said to me. I was embarrassed and taken aback. No; I did very little, I told him. I wrote letters, I wore a pin, and I marched; you are the one who suffered.  “Oh, but you don’t know how much those letters meant to us. You don’t know how much the pins and the marches meant. We felt abandoned here. We believed that no one cared.” I remembered the sign when we arrived: prisoners were told: “This is an island, you will die here.”  The man continued:  “And then someone began to sneak in newspaper articles about the American students who were fighting for us, and we had hope. We knew that America was strong, and that others would listen to America. We were so grateful to the American students, and the students around the world who fought for us. We hid those newspapers in our garden, so that we all could hold onto hope.”  He held my hands as he spoke, and the group circled us. I felt like a fraud, unable to believe that such meager efforts had meant so much. I was mortified by the others watching and listening.  Really, I stated again, it was very little! I am embarrassed by your thanks. He looked me in the eye, he became tearful. “You really don’t understand. You were all we had. You were everything to us.”  And we hugged, we held each other and cried. It was one of the most humbling, deeply moving moments in my life. (Images from Robben Island. Mandela as a prisoner, and the cell he lived in for 18+years- 6’x4′)

IMG_3661 IMG_3663 IMG_3664

I watched Madiba for the years after his imprisonment; I followed his time as the first black President of South Africa, and his years a humanitarian and man of peace. I kept his picture on my desk for many years. I felt that he, like Dr. King, stood for standing up for what is right, without violence or vengeance. He was human; I know there are stories about his marriage; I know that he was not always non-violent, but in the face of such inhumane treatment, and years of suffering, Madiba stands for the power of goodness over evil. His life is something that gives me hope for the world.

I was in the Seattle airport on December 5, waiting to leave for a fun weekend in New York City, when I looked up at the TV in the waiting area, and saw the news that the great man: Nelson Mandela, Madiba, had died. I still can not type those words without crying. I believed in Mandela. I felt a deep and meaningful affinity to him, and what he stood for. I knew he was ill, and I knew that his family had hoped for a peaceful end to his suffering, but the news was still so hard to hear. It was with me throughout the weekend, as I raced from site to site and took in the city. It was hard to let it go. I felt torn, going out to enjoy the short time I had with friends, and NYC, knowing that this amazing man was gone. A week later, I ended up in the hospital, sick. Even there the news would come to me, sneak up on me… it does still now.

Both Nelson Mandela and MLK, Jr., stood for something so much bigger than the private and public wars they waged. Both men were brutalized and scorned by the opposition; both were imprisoned and slandered. Their families suffered beside them. While Mandela served more than 27 years in prison (18 of them on Robben Island), and suffered numerous physical scars from his time at hard labor, Dr. King paid the ultimate price for Civil Rights for all. He was murdered– shot in Memphis, on April 4, 1968. It’s hard to believe that he was only 39 years old at the time of his death, but left such an enormous legacy of peace, vigilance and righteousness.   (Powerful video of U2’s Pride, In The Name of Love, about MLK, Jr:)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. image:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. image:

This morning, when I woke up and thought about this holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, I couldn’t help but think of Nelson Mandela as well. I couldn’t help but think about the fight that they both fought, with fists unclenched and peace in their hearts. I am still humbled by their grace and conviction. I imagine that they would have been friends. As young men, they were living such similar lives, running parallel in different places.  Both charismatic, passionate and driven. This morning, I couldn’t help but think about my father, dead for 40 years now, slapping me– the beginning of a lesson that has followed me my whole life. Mandela’s death is still fresh, and I feel such sadness that a man of his stature was here and is gone, just as I feel the continued ghosts of the Civil Rights, my father, and a desire to be part of what is right, follow me. Mandela, like Dr.King, left a footprint on my heart, on my life. Today; I honor them both.  (The only song to sing, in both cases…)

My daughter was this close to Mandela!  ©ELL 2007

My daughter was this close to Mandela! ©ELL 2007

Also read:

Nelson Mandela Will Never Be Your Minstrel (VERY moving):

Nelson Mandela: Wiki

Boston Busing: Wiki

Black People, a history: Wiki

The Telegraph– Archive, Nelson Mandela Freed (amazing video of his release from prison)

If you really want to learn about the Civil Rights movement, rent/buy Eyes On The Prize, the award winning PBS documentary. Truly amazing! It’s not just about the 1960s.

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About Dawn Quyle Landau

Mother, Writer, treasure hunter, aging red head, and sushi lover. This is my view on life, "Straight up, with a twist––" because life is too short to be subtle! Featured blogger for Huffington Post, and followed on Twitter by LeBron James– for reasons beyond my comprehension.
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23 Responses to Remembering Nelson Mandela on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday

  1. Great post, great way to honor both men– giants among humankind. What a memory of your father and sad you didn’t really know how he felt- but that slap says a lot. Thanks for sharing your personal stories and connections. We were in South Africa in 2007 too– I hated the place– very different than being in US cities. I also protested against apartheid in college. Felt so cool then.


    • I loved S. Africa… there was so much to make me think. So much that impacted me… visiting Soweto, touring the coast, going to the top of Table Mt…. etc. It is not a place that is easy, but I loved it. Thanks for reading and sharing your own thoughts, Lisa. Much appreciated.


  2. So powerful…and a great meditation for me today, a day that was full of kids off of school, carting my daughter to a birthday party, playdates, errands, and laundry. My kids and I talked some about MLK this weekend, and my son and I went and got a cookie from the bakery for his birthday. But sometimes it is so easy to let the enormity of what men like MLK and Mandela stand for become too “settled.” I can’t even imagine what that experience on Robben Island was like, and what it felt like to receive such gratitude expressed to you for something that seemed so small. Thanks for sharing this, Dawn…I’m going to share it as well.


    • Thanks Kelly. I have been wanting to write something… write something that begins to cover the enormity of my emotions about these men, since Madiba’s death in December. I wish I’d done it earlier, but this is when my heart was ready. I still feel so emotional about his death. Yes, I think our children do not fully appreciate what all of this means… Rent Eyes On The Prize some time. Talk about a series that truly brings the Civil Rights into focus! Thanks for your kind comments. xo


  3. Cami Ostman says:

    Wow, what a wonderful, complete article, Dawn. Well done! Thank you.


  4. jgroeber says:

    Oh, exactly. And thank you for that, for finding the words to bring those memories alive.
    Tonight I was reading my children a young adult book about civl rights marches and what they meant. I had my phone with me, and as we snuggled in bed I went to youtube on my phone, found the I Have Dream speech and played it for them. They were wriggling and asking ridiculous questions about the microphones and the Washington Mall. And they were frustrated by the waiting, “When will he say the I Have a Dream?” They know enough to know how much that matters to me.
    “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Well, it makes me cry every time. “Are you crying yet, Mama?” I have no idea how to teach them this without putting our limitations onto them, but I try every day.
    Thank you, yet again.


    • I cry every time too, and get chills each time I hear either man speak. Seeing the video of Mandela walking out of prison again, nearly undid me. What remarkable men… how indeed, to teach our children about such grace and courage?
      When your kids are much older, rent Eyes On the Prize; it’s a total game changer. Thanks for your wonderful comment, Jen.


  5. Pingback: Remembering Nelson Mandela on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday | ugiridharaprasad

  6. zeudytigre says:

    A very moving, powerful and thought provoking post, beautifully written.


    • Thank you so much. I was wanting to write it for weeks but finally got to it when MLK, Jr’s birthday came. The two stories just became one. 😉 Thanks for taking the time to read and share your feedback; much appreciated.


  7. susanissima says:

    You put a lot of energy into this touching piece of writing, Dawn.Thank you. Both Mandela and MLK Jr. were remarkable in that they were willing to, and in fact did give up their life (Mandela behind bars for so many years) to advance their dream of freedom for others. How many people are that selfless? That loving? That willing to face the ultimate fear, death?


  8. rgayer55 says:

    What an outstanding and moving post, Dawn. Very thought provoking and beautifully written. I think sometimes we are racists (or at least hypocrites) even when we don’t think we are. I would have loved to click the “LIKE” button, but for some reason it never loads on this browser. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.


  9. Stunning account. Makes me feel a bit inadequate in my own distain of all things politics while growing up. I too remember the forced bussing of the kids in Boston. We had a handful bussed out to our high school as well. We were only a few towns away from towns like Roxbury, Dorchester and Jamaica Plains, but worlds away in terms of ethnicity and economics. I remember hearing about knife fights on the buses as well.

    Your writing always brings me along with every molecule of emotion. I had a hard time controlling mine, as I have just read this with my family swarming around. Thank you for such a poignant and moving piece.


    • S, this was a meaningful post for me I wanted to write it for ages! So, I’m glad it meant something to others. In writing this, I just learned from a private comment that the kids who were bussed to my town were NOT part of forced bussing, but a program named Metco, which was by choice, but a response of sorts to the forced bussing. Our town was ahead of the game and offered a place for kids in Boston, that wasn’t so negative I still wonder how that effected them: going so far for education. But I’m even prouder to learn that it was very different than the forced situation that you refer to.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read this, and Share your kind thoughts. It’s sincerely an honor to know that my writing does that for anyone! Thanks so much for sharing that.


  10. Lore says:

    There is no point arguing that Nelson Mandela is one of the gesrtaet leaders the African continent has produced in history. Here are some of Nelson Mandela’s best quotes:“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death”. I dream of the realization of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their efforts to solve the problems of this continent. I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses .“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” “One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others.” “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.” +4Was this answer helpful?



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