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Northeastern celebrates Mandela’s life, legacy

Members of the Northeastern University community gathered in the Sacred Space on Thursday afternoon to commemorate the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid icon who died last week at the age of 95.

The hourlong ceremony featured a partial screening of a Mandela biopic; a reading of a pair of his most inspiring pieces of writing; a singing of the South African national anthem; and poignant remarks by students, faculty, and staff.

Speakers remembered Mandela as a moral and political genius, a fearless freedom fighter, and a courageous peacemaker with an understated sense of humor. One by one, his ardent admirers stepped to an altar at which a candle gently flickered in his honor and delivered effusive praise.

“I hope the world remembers him as one of the greatest leaders it has ever had,” said Richard O’Bryant, director of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute.

Shaya Gregory Poku, Program Manager for the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service, discusses the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

Shaya Gregory Poku, program manager for the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service, discusses the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

Like O’Bryant, most of the speakers shared their personal connections with the man they called Madiba. O’Bryant noted that his father helped lead the university’s effort to award Mandela an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in absentia in May of 1988, while serving his 27-year jail sentence. Alexander Levering Kern, the executive director of the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service, was arrested on Mother’s Day in 1986 for protesting Mandela’s imprisonment at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. In 1993, law professor Margaret Burnham was appointed by her mentor to an international human rights commission to investigate alleged human rights violations within the African National Congress.

“Part of his genius lay in the way he made millions of people across the globe feel a personal connection to him,” Kern said. “This is why so many of us feel his loss so acutely.”

“He had the gift of looking into the eyes of every person he met and expressing to them that they were as important as he was on this planet,” added Burnham, who later noted that Mandela’s leadership paved the way for the election of President Barack Obama and “progressive leaders everywhere.”

Garika Chengu, a visiting scholar at the African American Institute, read a selection from Mandela’s 1956 article “Freedom in Our Lifetime,” in which he challenged his fellow compatriots to help “vanquish all opposition and win the South Africa of our dreams.”

“We have to realize that his struggles are by no means over,” Chengu said. “We have to make sure we finish what he has started.”

Following the ceremony, attendees were encouraged to sign an oversize sympathy card that will be sent to Graca Machel, Mandela’s wife of 15 years. One message read, “Father Africa, the whole world will miss you. You fought for all people.” Another said, “We must continue to live on in his legacy—striving for equality and social justice. Long live Madiba. Rest in power.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service; the Social Justice Resource Center; the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute; and the Department of African American Studies.