Mandela and A Millennial Generation’s Connection to the Civil Rights Movement

A young member of the Maitibolo Cultural Troupe, who came to dance for well-wishers in honour of Nelson Mandela, poses for well-wishers in front of a placard of Mandela, outside the entrance to the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, South Africa Photo: AP
A young member of the Maitibolo Cultural Troupe, who came to dance for well-wishers in honour of Nelson Mandela, poses for well-wishers in front of a placard of Mandela, outside the entrance to the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, South Africa Photo: AP

It was the summer of 1993, and the typical warmth of the midwest sun had found its way to Chicago.  About four blocks from my house, an easy walking distance was, and still is, the headquarters for Operation PUSH and Jesse Jackson, Sr.’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition.  I remember my mother dragging me down to the event, but at least as far as memories go, I wasn’t so much dragged as I was simply told I needed to be there.  I don’t remember being inside the building or anything especially except climbing up the stone facaded side of the building behind some shrubs on east 50th street trying to catch a glimpse of the gray-haired man that was causing all of the crowds to be pressed out onto the streets.  That particular July day, the three years freed political prisoner Nelson Mandela was in town.

Nelson Mandela prisonBy the time Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994, he had created a movement that was global–all from within a prison cell.  The vast majority of his life’s work that catapulted him toward international fame was the sum total of 27 years a prisoner.  Pan-Africanism had received a resurgence from that of Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois following the Black Power movement of the 1960s and a certain level of black consciousness arose in certain segments of black America that had direct strains of pan-Africanism throughout it.  These small segments began the early “Free Nelson” and “Free South Africa” urban movements that caught fire by the late 1980s.

The United States’ story starts in 1972 with U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums, (from Oakland no shocker there, also the start of the Black Panthers) who first introduced legislation for the U.S. to end apartheid legislation in South Africa.  What results is that by the mid to late 1980s, the youth who did not have to struggle in the way their parents did, nor have to experience the violent brutalities that existed a short few years ago, now had a legitimate struggle to attach themselves.

I remember my parents sending me to the New Concept Development Center preschool in the 7500 block of Cottage Grove.  The building is torn down now and the green door into the Afrocentric bookstore is but a memory and an image on faded photographs, but the memories still resonate heavily with me as far as how our civil rights struggle is connected a global community and specifically with Africa.  This message was much more resonant with the youth and young adults of the 1980s.

The 1980s here in the United States was a time in which malaise had somewhat crept into minds of the American public.  The tumult of the 1960s was over with, the country had finally pulled out of Vietnam and the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed to fade with every day as the Cold War actually seemed to be coming to an end peacefully.  Notwithstanding the Vietnam era, Free South Africa buttonmany of the domestic struggles now seemed linked to the global sphere in ways which had never been connected.  As the U.S. fought “the war on drugs” and as the poverty gap seemed to increase exponentially behind Reganomic policies, blacks in the American inner city began to identify with the struggles of the blacks and coloreds in Cape Town and Soweto–who still did not have the basic voting rights.

Divest signThe iconic Spike Lee movie “School Daze” was released in 1988 has the opening scene showing the central character Dap, leading a school protest and specifically speaking about the school not doing business with companies that are doing business in South Africa.  The word “divest” was introduced into the diurnal lexicon of many young people who had an eye toward global politics.  Even still to this day, the word still hearkens back to a South African apartheid era world.

The late 80s, straight through the mid-90s was this small resurgence of the Black Power movement in the United States.  It was also the era in which hip hop as a music form had solidified its place in American culture, but also because it called upon the conscience of young black youth as well.  Now some may be able to look back some twenty odd years and also mark it as the moment in which began an Orwellian march toward hip hop and post-hip hop nihilism, but in that small crucible from 1986 to 1994, this connection of global awareness was formed.

This was the era of high top fades, blow out styles (just think of the hairstyles Vanessa and Theo used to rock on The Cosby Show), black youth were embracing the hip hop style of baggy clothing and doorknocker earrings: over the top and loud, just like their emotions.  With crack hitting the streets in the 1980s, urban decay and white flight along with northern cities electing their first black mayors, there was a deep sense of racial inequity that was uniquely felt by the residents of these inner cities.

But it wasn’t quite the same as it was before.

Racism had a different face.  Al Sharpton noted years later at Rosa Park’s funeral that the new face of racism was no longer Jim Crow, but James Crow, Esq.  Michelle Alexander writes about this “new Jim Crow” that we saw heavily in the 1980s.  The benign neglect that took place in public housing and the municipal maintenance of neighborhoods with high black and Latino populations as well as the police brutality in many neighborhoods all resonated in black music and black culture.  This was the era in which NWA dropped “F*ck tha Police” on the West Coast in 1988 and Public Enemy dropped “Fight the Power” at the request of Spike Lee who debuted, what some still consider his piece de resistance, “Do the Right Thing” in 1989.

The next winter, Mandela was released from prison in 1990.

I remember the resurgence of black men using Afro picks with the black power fist on them, people were wearing dashkis again, Jesse Jackson gave a damn good run for president in 1988, and then again, Spike Lee released “Malcolm X.”  Check the final scene:

Spike Lee in cinematic prowess connected the struggle for freedom in South Africa with that of our still longing for freedom here in the United States.  While the young people, black and white, didn’t face the same de jure struggles with segregation and apartheid here in the United States as we crossed the threshold into the last decade of the millennium, the society was coming to grips with the gross failures and the results of institutional racism that was just a part of the American capitalist system.  While passbooks were never required in the United States as it had been under apartheid, we began identifying what it meant to be driving while black on the New Jersey turnpike.  The microaggressions at a workplace to the Rodney King beating, trial of the police officers and ensuing Los Angeles riots to the election of David Duke and the “hands” commercial of Jesse Helms, all contributed to the black cultural zeitgeist that connected us to the civil rights movement.

youth waiting for MAndela
SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA: Young boys try to see ANC President Nelson Mandela at Orlando soccer stadium 12 February 1990 whilst thousands of Sowetans wait for him. Mandela arrived in Johannesburg this evening but has not been to Soweto yet. (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

Watching Mandela be freed after 27 years let black folk know both symbolically and in fact that there was still a fight worth doing.  There was a upswing to black cultural pride in the media and movies away from the blaxploitation films and black Americans mostly identified with George Jefferson or characters from “Good Times”; remember “The Cosby Show” was the #1 show in the country in 1989 and 1990.  We had the image of uplift on one hand, but my generation closely identified with the struggle still in South Africa.  The struggle on the streets of Oakland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York was the same struggle in Cape Town, Pretoria, Durban, Bloemfontaine and Johannesburg.

In 1994 there were no smart phones that had news apps that immediately flashed across a screen breaking news, so we had to wait till the morning paper, the Chicago Sun-Times that was bought, for thirty-five cents (fifteen cents cheaper than the “Trib”), to see the front page image of the long lines snaking for miles and a tilted image of Nelson Mandela’s face announcing he won by a landslide.  I remember getting home from school and my mother looking at the picture, she remarked plainly how she didn’t like that his picture was tilted, as if for a man of such regal stature and respect was due a straight-laced portrait image fit for royalty.

I am a part of the generation that fought for nothing.  Tavis Smiley first brought that to my attention in 2004 as a sophomore or junior in college when he was brought to speak to the students.  My friends and I applied to colleges of our choice, we sat where we wanted on public transportation, we used whichever doors we wanted to use at department stores, we lived in whatever neighborhoods we chose–we never struggled.  Be that as it may, many of us were shaped by the struggle of those across the Atlantic who suffered hard oppression of colonization only six years short of the 3rd millennium of this new epoch.

As Facebook statuses, tweets and Instagram pictures are published worldwide in an 21st century digital eulogy, preachers in Christian churches, imams in mosques, rabbis in synagogues and the myriad of holy persons leading the masses down the many paths of enlightenment will no doubt pause at some time this week beyond the memorial service in a moment of reflection of Madiba.  We will reflect upon his struggles and what he meant to the world, but I can’t help but think about what he meant to this generation.

Youth+Day+Celebrated+South+Africa+2zSb-zay2azlMandela had a tangible effect on millennials and that’s a fact that shouldn’t be missed.  Mandela gave us a glimpse into what it meant to be a citizen overseas who had watched water hoses and attack dogs turned on non-violent protesters.  While that was our story, uniquely an American Negro story born in the crucible of 1963 and later through 1965, my generation was able to see what impact the human story has on a global society.  We saw the protests to “Free Mandela” and “Free South Africa” and the story of the Soweto uprising in the 1970s was fixed clearly in our minds–do they hate us so much that they would kill our youth?

They fear us because we are the generation that will see freedom.

While a previous generation understood the Negro spirituals and the “freedom songs” of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” or “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” songs sung at a civil rights rally in a local church, my generation had  “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.”  This was a song I learned in preschool, and it is a song that I hold near and dear to my heart until this day.  Hearing the crowds of South African youth from Soweto participate in the call-and-response “AMANDLA! AWETHU!” was nothing short of hearing Jesse Jackson call out “I AM–SOMEBODY!”  Our generation marveled at the majesty of the flowing garb worn by the iconic Winnie Mandela imagining her as our modern-day Queen Nefertiti, Queen Mother Nzinga or Vashti, and we understood her in the tradition of Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz and Myrlie Evers.  Seeing South Africans marching and dancing in the dusty streets, coming over a way with the blood of the slaughtered, marching in the same pathin It is a song of the fight for freedom and one that is intricately, if at times invisibly connected, to our generation.

Mandela was a giant among men, but he was not one of the immortals.  His day is done.  The sun has finally set on his life as he had toiled during the heat of the day striving for the freedom and equality of all, ever an advocate for peace.  Forwarding the concept of “weapons formed for us” he embodied the concept of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah who said ” they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

In the words of President Barack Obama echoing the well-words spoken of Abraham Lincoln, Mandela no longer belongs to humanity, but he belongs to the ages.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

Nelson Mandela smiling


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