Louis Stokes remembers Nelson Mandela

Lou Stokes | 12/11/2013, 11:49 a.m.
When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated after being elected President of South Africa people from all over the world journeyed there ...
Lou Stokes with Nelson Mandela. (photo courtesy of Lou Stokes)

The death of former South African President Mandela leaves a huge deficit in world leadership. His legacy of courage, leadership and devotion to his country not only set him apart from other leaders but also established his greatness.

I will always cherish the two occasions I met with him. On both occasions I realized I was sitting in the presence of one of the greatest men who has ever lived.

I have been privileged to know three of the greatest men in history. They are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Anwar Sadat, late President of Egypt, and Nelson Mandela. When you sat in their presence you felt that you were consumed by their greatness. They were extraordinary human beings, yet very human and down to earth,

In the case of Mr. Mandela, his feat of serving 27 years in a tiny jail cell from which he walked out smiling at his jailers will never be replicated again. It was the measure of a man, a great man. I admired him for the leadership he displayed in being willing to be jailed and even to die, if necessary for the freedom of his people. As we talked, I told him what a hero he was to me and how he inspired me through his dignity and integrity. I told him what an inspiration he had also been to my brother, Carl. He said to me, "In my country the Stokes name is a household word." I thanked him.

As we spoke, I was proud that I had been a part of the Congressional Black Caucus which had been leaders in Congress to force sanctions and a world wide boycott on South Africa. We worked to force Mandela's release as well as the complete elimination of apartheid. In the Congressional Black Caucus, Ron Dellums and Maxine Waters were the leaders of this effort. Walter Fauntroy, Delegate from the District of Columbia coordinated marches and protests in front of the South African Embassy. I was proud to be one of those who marched and was arrested and jailed when we refused the D.C. Police order to leave. When taken to jail we refused bond, spent the night in jail, and went to Court the next morning where all charges were dropped.

When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated after being elected President of South Africa people from all over the world journeyed there to see this miracle. The United States sent three delegations in three United States Air Force planes. I led the House of Representatives delegation by appointment of the Speaker of the House. The day of the Inaugural there was a sea of people attending. Everyone was quiet, trying to see and hear every word of this historic occasion. It was as though the world stood still. Just before taking the oath of office Mandela acknowledged the presence of his jailers whom he had invited to his inaugural. The crowd stood hushed. A few moments later everyone was awestruck as they witnessed the first Black President of South Africa take office. The silence of the moment was suddenly drawn to the skies where more than fifty South African Air Force fighter planes, all in beautiful formation flew over the Capitol streaming smoke the colors of the South African from their tails. It was a gorgeous sight that was followed by the release of doves who flew off into the sunset. At that moment Nelson Mandela presided over the world.