When Nelson Mandela Came to America

In the summer of 1990, Nelson Mandela toured the United States to raise money for the South African anti-apartheid struggle. His trip highlighted the historic links between the struggle for freedom in South Africa with the Civil Rights Movement in the US — a spirit of international solidarity that the US left must rekindle.

Nelson Mandela in Cape Town, South Africa in 2009. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images)

It was called “Mandelamania,” and it took America by storm in the summer of 1990. Ostensibly an attempt to raise money for the African National Congress (ANC), Nelson Mandela’s eight-city tour of the United States linked the struggle for democracy in South Africa with the black freedom struggle in the United States while laying bare the persistence of right-wing anti-communism.

Hundreds of thousands turned out to see Mandela. Yet the trip came just three years after Congress had been forced to override then-President Ronald Reagan’s veto of a sanctions bill designed to pressure South Africa’s white minority government.

Fighting apartheid had long been a concern for US civil rights activists. Martin Luther King Jr supported the Appeal for Action Against Apartheid in 1962, and in 1965, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee protested at Chase Manhattan Bank, calling on the institution to end its loans to South Africa. In the late 1970s, the struggle against apartheid became a national issue for the first time, as President Jimmy Carter spoke out, however tentatively, against South Africa’s racist government.

It was not until the 1980s, however, that the Anti-Apartheid Movement’s push for sanctions against South Africa gained enough traction to win congressional support. President Ronald Reagan opposed the sanctions movement, arguing that Washington must continue to work with the apartheid government, a stalwart US ally in the Cold War. But he was protecting a dying regime. Congress passed the sanctions bill over his veto, and nations all over the world did the same.

By 1990, on the eve of Mandela’s visit, public support was clearly on the side of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Meanwhile, the internationalism of African-American politicians such as Ron Dellums of California and Mickey Leland of Texas, both in the House of Representatives, gave an organized and effective voice within the halls of Congress for the sanctions push. Organizations like the TransAfrica Forum, established in 1977, were also critical to pressing the anti-apartheid cause within the United States.

Mandela’s visit in the summer of 1990 was part of a long tradition of African Americans and Africans touring the world to promote anti–Jim Crow and anti-colonialist ideas. Martin Luther King Jr made trips to India and Ghana during the 1950s; Malcolm X’s multiple trips to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe solidified his legacy as a figure of international stature.

Future African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah received their education at historically black colleges in the United States, and never forgot those ties to peoples of the black diaspora. For many of these leaders, the struggle for black freedom in America was part of a worldwide struggle against oppression.

Mandela was no different: many of his stops were in cities with significant black populations, with crucial historical ties to the Civil Rights Movement. His first stop was New York City. David Dinkins had won the mayoral race the previous year, becoming the city’s first — and so far, only — African-American leader. His election came after a decade of racial tensions across the city.

The murder of Michael Griffith in 1986 in Howard Beach, the controversy over the “Central Park Five” in 1989, and the killing of Yusef Hawkins that same year all fed a brewing racial crisis in New York City. Into this stepped Mandela, who received a ticker-tape parade when he entered the city on June 20, 1990. Mandela, Mayor Dinkins declared ahead of his arrival, was “a transcendent symbol of freedom.”

Mandela’s visit to Harlem turned into a hurrah for a neighborhood that was long the center of African-American life, but by 1990 had fallen on hard social and economic times. As the New York Times put it, Mandela’s visit to Harlem served as “a dose of pride and inspiration” for the embattled community.

African Americans there, well aware of the long history of transnational organizing between African Americans and other peoples of African descent, applauded Mandela’s efforts to break the apartheid regime in South Africa. This would be mirrored by African Americans across the nation, many of whom spoke with pride and a sense of renewed focus on advancing freedom and equality in the United States after seeing Mandela.

That transnational solidarity went both ways. Mandela spoke highly of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, having become familiar with the movement’s trials and tribulations while in prison in South Africa. His meeting with Rosa Parks in Detroit — when Mandela, so excited to meet the civil rights icon, rushed out of the airplane and yelled, “Rosa! Rosa! Rosa!” — further symbolized these links. Parks herself had supported the Anti-Apartheid Movement for years, working in Detroit in the 1970s to push divestment from the South African government.

While visiting the Motor City, Mandela praised the city’s historic labor movement and received a membership card from the United Auto Workers, a staunch supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. Detroit’s history on race and labor was even more intertwined than that — it was the headquarters of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, an organization founded in 1969 that represented the far-left edge of African-American radical labor ideology.

Later in his tour, Mandela visited Atlanta, meeting with Coretta Scott King, as well as other African American political leaders in the city. He placed a wreath on the tomb of Martin Luther King Jr, and spoke at Morehouse College, a historically black college.

Despite the warm welcome Mandela received in many quarters, American conservatives — emboldened after two terms of Ronald Reagan and still skeptical of the anti-apartheid crusade — heaped scorn on the South African leader. Mandela’s refusal to repudiate the ANC’s use of violence in the past against the hyper-authoritarian apartheid regime came in for particular criticism.

“Nonviolence is a good policy when conditions permit,” Mandela said, defending the ANC’s tactics, “but there may be cases where the conditions do not permit.” Coretta Scott King, among others, stood by Mandela, insisting the movement needed to keep its options open as South Africa lurched unevenly towards ending apartheid.

In Miami, Cuban-American leaders spoke out against Mandela’s friendship with Fidel Castro. Again Mandela was unapologetic: he noted that Castro was one of the few foreign leaders to offer unabashed support for the ANC during their time of need, struggling against South Africa’s government.

Mandela also refused to renounce his support for Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and another backer of the ANC. That most African-American political and social leaders backed Mandela and declined to criticize him on these grounds also showed how much African Americans saw their fate tied to democratic movements around the world — even if that put them at odds with the US foreign policy establishment.

Mandela’s American trip in 1990 occurred at the intersection of US foreign and domestic policy. Echoes of this can be seen today, as Black Lives Matter demonstrations break out in South Africa, throughout Western Europe, and elsewhere.

Creating a broad, effective left in American society will depend on our ability to forge ties across national borders. One of the best ways to do this will be by reinvigorating the traditional links across the African diaspora. Today, as racial politics in the United States undergo a seismic shift, the intertwined spirits of King and Mandela should be a beacon of international solidarity, animating our own struggle for justice and democracy.