Nelson Mandela has been hospitalized twice in the past month, causing speculation as to how much longer the former South African president has to live. And although things are looking up for the 94-year-old, it does seem an appropriate time for reflection.
The man is impressively accomplished, having emerged from a brutal 27-year prison term to become the first black president in his historically racist nation’s history. He’s also won a Nobel Peace Prize and written a bestselling autobiography.
When he dies, he’ll leave behind an undeniable legacy as an international leader and outspoken civil and human rights activist. He’s beloved worldwide, and will be remembered as such for many years.
Mandela’s lucky, in a way: He survived Robin Island, and has battled pneumonia and lung infections for years. But at least he’s alive. And many people we perceive as icons in the global struggle for equality cannot say the same.
Watching Mandela fight through his health afflictions inevitably spurs reflections on the legacy of those who didn’t make it so far. So many have been cut down by violence as to cement the risk of assassination as an occupational hazard: get free or die trying. It’s a fact of life as real as it is heartbreaking.
Growing old like Mandela is a luxury rarely afforded those in his “line of work.” And even when it has occurred, violence is never far away.
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Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind: in January 1948, when he was 78-years-old, the man widely credited with liberating India from the British Empire was shot dead by Nathuram Godse as he was priming to address a prayer meeting.
Photo Credit: NY Daily News
Malcolm X was 39 when an assassin’s bullets took his life in February 1965. His wife and children were in the front row when it happened, preparing to watch him address a crowd at New York City’s Audubon Ballroom.
Photo Credit: Christian Science Monitor
Then there was the man our nation finally saw fit to declare a national holiday in celebration of: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose murder in Memphis on April 4, 1968 sparked riots across the country. He was also 39.
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And finally we had Fred Hampton, a promising young leader in the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. On December 4, 1969, he was shot to death when the police opened fire on his home while he and his pregnant girlfriend slept. He’d turned 21 just a few months earlier.
These are just four of many: Their fame has been cemented in our popular consciousness, but others doing similar work have met with the same fate. The price they’ve paid for equal rights is one we’d do well to reflect upon.
But Nelson Mandela is one of the survivors, a leader who made it through a violent and repressive era to help guide his nation toward a more progressive future. Much work is yet to be done, but were it not for Mandela and those who worked alongside him, it’s horrifying to think where South Africa (and by extension, the world) would be today.
The man is 94-years-old. Appreciate him while he’s still here.