If you were there, you remember Mandela's 1990 tour of the US

From a ticker-tape parade in New York to a key to the city of LA, crowds flocked to see him, hear him, touch him

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As the world began to mourn Nelson Mandela’s death last week, Leticia Miranda wondered if she had really seen the South African leader in person when she was 4 years old. Was the memory she was carrying around real? Or just something she saw on television?

But a call to her parents confirmed that, yes, they had indeed driven up from their home in San Jose, Calif., to see Mandela at the Oakland Coliseum, the last stop of his historic visit to the U.S. in 1990.

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Just months free after 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela had embarked on a world tour, in part because global pressure on the apartheid government of South Africa had helped free him. He was also fundraising for the African National Congress (ANC), lobbying world politicians and business leaders to maintain the sanctions and other pressures levied on the South African government, lest his release be seen as meaning the struggle against apartheid was fully over.

In 12 days, Mandela visited eight American cities: New York, Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Detroit, Los Angeles and Oakland. While he had official meetings in each place, hundreds of thousands of everyday Americans came out to welcome him, packing stadiums usually reserved for big sporting events and filling the streets where his motorcade would pass.

They turned out to hear and see the man who had become a living symbol of the struggle for racial equality and colonial liberation. They also came to celebrate the triumph over apartheid that they saw in his release.

African-Americans were the majority at several of the events, as well as others who felt they shared with South Africa and Mandela the experience of lives marred by inequality and injustice. Many were simply moved by the ability of a man, who should have been broken after his long imprisonment, to emerge ready to carry on at the age of 71. 

Even former opponents of the ANC, Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement came out.

Those who look back rarely remember his words, but speak of a sense of celebration and victory, and a feeling of being a witness to history. They describe Mandela’s ability to enrapture a crowd and inspire. His death has made many of them pause and remember the day they shared with him in 1990.


Mandela in Oakland, Calif., the last stop on his eight-city tour.
Sarah Fawcett/AP

Mandela supporters in the San Francisco Bay Area had pushed to be included in the hastily arranged schedule because Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco at the time all had ordinances calling for divestment of stocks in American companies doing business with South Africa's apartheid government.

Miranda’s father was a public defender, the first professional in his family after a long line of Chicano farmworkers. Over dinner he would tell his daughters about workers' rights, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and apartheid. He wanted them to be there at the Mandela event, no matter how young they were.

She remembered multitudes of people and her father leaning down to her, pointing toward the stage and telling her, “That’s Nelson Mandela.” She didn’t know who he was but somehow knew it was a special moment.

“It seemed joyous, celebratory,” said Miranda, now a freelance reporter and journalism student at New York University.

"It was euphoric, a celebration, overwhelming — a cross between a rock concert and a spiritual experience,” says Nasri Zacharia, now the program director at the Harlem International Film Festival, who was also at the Oakland Coliseum that day. At the time, he was a college student and activist at the University of California, Davis.

“That was the first time in my life, and maybe the last, where I was swept up in that kind of wave of popular sentiment and euphoria and feeling of accomplishment, that finally, after all these struggles, something positive came out of it,'' he said. "The feeling was, apartheid’s days were numbered.”


Darrel Drobnich's ticket to the rally for Nelson Mandela at Tiger Stadium in 1990.
courtesy of Darrel Drobnich

Mandela’s only stop in the Midwest was Detroit. Chicago was conspicuously absent from his itinerary; then-Mayor Richard M. Daley was seen by organizers as too lenient with companies that had dealings in South Africa.

Mandela arrived in Michigan after receiving a chilly reception in Miami. Five of Florida’s Cuban-American mayors, including the mayor of Miami, signed a declaration criticizing Mandela for his position on Cuba and declined to provide an official welcome.

In Detroit, Mandela toured the Ford Motor Co.'s Rouge plant and attended an evening rally at Tiger Stadium. 

“It was like being at the World Series and the Super Bowl in one,” said Detroit native Darrel Drobnich, a nonprofit consultant based in D.C. At the time, he was working for Michigan Sen. Carl Levin.

He remembers Mandela driving the Motor City crowd into a frenzy when he quoted Marvin Gaye: “Brother, brother, brother/There's far too many of you dying.”

“It was a party — we were ecstatic and really excited. People never thought they’d see him out of prison, let alone alive and in Detroit. Nelson Mandela in Detroit — that was huge!” said Drobnich. “People forget how much of a battle it was. Mandela’s freedom, our ability to join him in celebration of that freedom, was a real moral victory.”

The day Mandela died, Drobnich posted a picture of his ticket from that day on his Facebook page.

Washington, D.C.

President George H.W. Bush shook Mandela's hand during a White House arrival ceremony in 1990.
Dirck Halstead/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

In D.C., where over the years thousands had been arrested in anti-apartheid protests at the South African Embassy and where the political battle over sanctions had played out, even Mandela’s opponents jockeyed to see him.

He met with President George H.W. Bush at the White House and Secretary of State James Baker, had breakfast with the Congressional Black Caucus and addressed a joint meeting of Congress. For D.C. residents, there was a rally at the convention center.

Joseph Jordan, at the time the co-chair of the international nonprofit Southern Africa Support Project, helped to organize Mandela's visit in the District. Now the director of the Center for Black Culture and History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jordan recalled that even people who had been anti-Mandela, who had considered him a terrorist and a murderer, clamored to be at the front of the line at the convention center.

"They were jumping up just like everyone else,'' he said. "You knew a part of history was coming into your town and history would be made when that individual spoke.”

Jordan had spent years of his life organizing grassroots support in the U.S. for Mandela, but spent barely a second with him.

“He walked by and slapped hands and kept going,” he said. “To me, that was good enough.”

Los Angeles

Kevin Riley, now a sound designer in the Bay Area, was 13 in 1990 when he went with his immediate family to see Mandela at the Los Angeles Coliseum. 

Quincy Jones and Lionel Ritchie put on a star-studded concert to welcome Mandela to Los Angeles. Riley remembers rappers like Ice T, King Tee and Tone Loc and South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. He also remembers that everyone continued to talk and carry on throughout the performances.

But when Mandela rose to speak, he said, "it felt like time stood still."

"The whole aura of the place changed,'' he said. "It just got quiet and everyone listened."

Contrasting it to the Coliseum’s location near South Central L.A., where gang violence had been escalating, he said, "It was a moment of peace.''

“Everyone was staying tuned in, and there was nothing else going on in the world at that moment.”

His most vivid memory: Mandela raised his fist high, and the entire audience rose to their feet with their own clenched hands in the air. Riley stood too, not knowing what it meant.

“To see my very reserved father, who was my big role model, with his fist in the air with everybody else, to see how much it resonated with him, was a powerful moment for me,” he said.


A volunteer security guard lifted a girl over the crowd at Big Bethel AME Church in Atlanta, where hundreds flocked to hear Mandela during his visit.
Tami Chappell/AP

When Mandela went to Atlanta, many were reminded of the legacy and resilience of their city’s own son Martin Luther King Jr.

Johnny Mason, today a judge with the Georgia State Board of Workers' Compensation, said both men shaped his career.

Active with Atlanta-based anti-apartheid efforts, he saw Mandela twice in that visit: first at a smaller gathering at an AME church and then at the podium on the field at Georgia Tech University’s Grant Stadium.

Mason grew up in King's church. His father was a driver for Martin Luther King Sr., and as a child, Mason had played with the King kids.

“How Mandela viewed life and the people who initially imprisoned him and hated him, that he could look at them with compassion and love, that was similar to King,” he said. “Each led the world in that direction, so that once they have passed through, the world is completely different.”

New York

The ticker-tape parade for Mandela in New York went along Broadway.
George Wildman/AP

When Mandela landed in the U.S., he touched down at JFK International Airport in New York. On just his first day in the city, police estimated that 750,000 people saw him at one point or another, either at his reception at the airport, along the route as he passed, at a ticker-tape parade along Broadway or at a ceremony at City Hall.

The next day he attended a service at Riverside Church, a rally in front of the Adam Clayton Powell building in Harlem and a rally and concert in Yankee Stadium. On his third and last day, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly.

Shonnese C.L. Coleman, an actress, saw him in Harlem. At the time, she was a student at New York University who was active in campus efforts to start an Africana studies department.

She described the people in front of the Powell building as an endless crowd in a sea of red, black, green and yellow African attire. 

“When Mandela became visible to the crowd, it was a roar you couldn’t hear anything but,” she said. “And when he spoke, it was quiet, so quiet, everyone could hear. I felt his spirit so close to me. It gave me chills.”


Mandela during a six-hour rally in Boston, with Sen. Edward Kennedy at his side.
Charles Krupa/AP

The day after the planned events in Boston, which included lunch with the Kennedy family, a motorcade through black neighborhoods and a six-hour-long public rally at the Esplanade, it was Mandela who got to play fan.

Faye Bowers, an assistant to the editor-in-chief of The Christian Science Monitor, had just come up from the parking lot below onto the plaza between the paper’s offices and the Christian Science church to report to work.

She was still grumpy about having been moved to a Sunday morning shift and was questioning whether she had made a mistake by not braving the traffic to see Mandela live instead of watching him on TV. “What kind of a news person are you?” she asked herself. 

As regret began to set in, she realized she was suddenly standing in front of Mandela himself as he strolled around the plaza’s reflecting pool, in the anonymity of the early hour.

“Stop!” she yelled out to him. “Wait right there!”

She ran into her editor’s office and told everyone she had spotted Nelson Mandela downstairs. Richard Cattani, the editor, grabbed his suit coat, and they rushed to intercept Mandela.

“We were all pretty darn excited,” said Bowers.

They found Mandela patiently waiting, exactly where she had left him.

He told them that when he was in prison, The Christian Science Monitor was one of the only papers he had the chance to read, she recalled.

“He thanked us for our unwavering coverage of apartheid,” she said. He then asked Cattani for a tour of the church. Bowers said Mandela told them that when he read the paper, he always wondered about that Mary Baker Eddy. 

“He said, ‘Only in America could a woman found a religion.’”

When she heard about his death, Bowers said, she remembered that day. “What a wonderful man — courageous, gracious, humble, who stood for his beliefs and made such a difference in the world. I am grateful to have gotten a close glimpse of him, grateful he came to Boston.

“He was so sweet and gracious, his eyes twinkled. And he stood right where I left him.”

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