Nelson Mandela's passing today makes me profoundly and horribly sad. He was a great man who suffered for his people during decades in prison. He was a brilliant orator who inspired a generation. He was a true hero in an era when we have painfully few.
As I write this, tears well up in my eyes. Truly the most important man of his generation is gone. Truly the most astonishing political leader of our time is no more.
I was covering Overtown and Liberty City for the Miami Herald back then and I was one of the few white reporters to do so. There had been incredible strife between Cubans and African Americans then. Riots a little more than a year before had burned parts of black Miami and anger ran high.
Then Mandela appeared on TV and pointed out that world pariahs like Fidel Castro had backed him when he was in jail for 27 years. He said he was grateful.
After Mandela announced that he would visit Miami in May 1990, then commissioner Victor De Yurre, who would become a pariah himself in later years, criticized the South Afrtican leader. He asked that a proclamation in Mandela's honor be rescinded. I remember gasping when I heard this. De Yurre thought he was playing good politics. He wasn't! I was embarrassed for the guy.
I remember calling African American luminaries in Miami that day. There wasn't really anger. People were just surprised as hell at De Yurre's ignorance and political gamesmanship. Then others followed. Mayor Xavier Suarez was more careful, but also pulled his support for the proclamation praising Mandela.
Miami Commissioner Miriam Alonso, who later lost for mayor after making lunatic comments like the "Mayor's job is Cuban," had never supported the proclamation for Mandela.
All three should be ashamed of themselves today, whether or not they have changed their tune. I said then, and I continue to say today, those actions were inexcusable.
Lawyer HT Smith led a black tourism boycott that followed. Many conventions decided not to come to the city and a convention hotel on the beach owned by blacks never materialized in the way the boycott sponsors hoped it would.
Miami grew up in this era, just as I did when I was in college at Brown University and we sat in at the University Hall in the late 70s to force divestiture from South Africa and to force out the apartheid that Mandela despised. I was part of a similar protest at the University of California at Berkeley in the mid 80s. Nelson Mandela was our shining light back then.
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The universities divested and apartheid eventually fell. Today, blacks in Miami continue to struggle economically. But there is no longer the intense hatred that characterized that era. We have a black president in the United States. Race relations in here are much better than they were. I think Nelson Mandela had something to do with all those things.
The world is poorer today. Let's all cry a little for our loss. Then let's try to make the world a better place as Mandela did.