Dear Morgan Family:
I am deeply saddened by the passing of one of the world’s most beloved leaders, Former South African President Nelson Mandela. Like this country’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. Mandela worked tirelessly for freedom and human rights while refusing to sacrifice his dignity as a means to bring about positive change. I had an opportunity to meet him in 1998 and found him to be a humble man who exuded intelligence, grace, and the vision to recognize the good in all mankind.
A principled leader, Mr. Mandela showed us all how the power of conviction could change a nation and impact the world.
I join with the entire Morgan State University community, and, indeed the world, in mourning the loss of this great man.
The following is an editorial written by Dr. Wilson on his meeting with Nelson Mandela, originally published in the Opelika-Auburn News on October 16, 1998. He met Nelson Mandela earlier that year in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, where Mr. Mandela received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Fort Hare.
‘JUST FINE NOW SIR, JUST FINE’
“Young man, how do you do?” my hero, Nelson Mandela asked me in a dignified and commanding voice. He was resplendent in his African garb and certainly in my heart and mind.
As he had walked toward me with his hand extended, my thoughts were of my father, my mother, my grandfather, my grandmother and those before them. I heard them whisper in my ears, “When you shake his hand, we will be shaking his hand with you.”
My hand was firmly in his. Our eyes connected. In his eyes, I saw all the struggles of my ancestors in the Alabama Black Belt. I saw my father having to truckle to the teenage son of the property owner where we sharecropped. I saw my father suffer during his final days on earth because, although he had worked 12 to 16 hours each day for more than 50 years, he did not have adequate health care insurance. Through Mr. Mandela’s eyes, I saw my mother’s face, hard and wrinkled from harsh winters without adequate shelter or clothing. I saw her hands, beat-up from washing clothes on wooden washboards to help us eke out a living.
I had wondered about this moment. How would I greet this man who embodies what it means to be free?
I had practiced in my mind. I would tell him that his courage and commitment to right the wrongs in South Africa had given me the drive to make a difference in the world. His temerity, I would tell him, in the face of the cruel and unjust punishment inflicted upon him by the white South African society, mobilized the world to fight for freedom, human rights and dignity for all South Africans.
If my two-year-old son or I become one-millionth the man he is, the world would have two more incredible human beings, I was going to tell him.
I wanted him to know he is my hero. I have few.
I respect and admire people based on the values they embrace. People who are willing to stand up and speak out for what they perceive as right, even when others around them keep their seats in silence. In my book, heroes aren’t people who just occupy positions of power, have acquired tremendous wealth or are blessed with athletic prowess.
As a state and a nation, we can learn from a man who emerged from nearly 30 years of imprisonment without bitterness or even apparent anger. Nelson Mandela presents himself as a symbol of peaceful, constructive change. His ultimate lesson is that we can and must reconcile our racial and cultural differences, then set this society on a course toward progress, as he is doing in South Africa.
Tears welled in my eyes as I mustered the best response at my command to my hero:
“Just fine now, Sir. Just fine.”