Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Nelson Mandela: His impact on American activism, politics and pop culture

By Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
December 6, 2013 -- Updated 1606 GMT (0006 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama ordered flags lowered to half-staff in memory of Nelson Mandela
  • Mandela loomed large over American activists and politicians
  • His plight has been repeatedly depicted by Hollywood

Send us your stories, memories and photographs of the Nobel Peace prize winner and former South African president.

(CNN) -- Word of Nelson Mandela's death spread quickly across the United States, bringing with it a mix of reverence and grief for a man who was born in South Africa but in the end belonged to the world.

President Barack Obama ordered American flags to be lowered immediately to half-staff until Monday in tribute to Mandela, a rare honor for a foreign leader.

Memorials to the former South African president popped up from Los Angeles to Chicago, where flowers and candles were laid in front of murals bearing his likeness. In Washington, people gathered in front of South Africa's embassy.

For many Americans, the death of Mandela was akin to losing one of their own.

Nelson Mandela, the prisoner-turned-president who reconciled South Africa after the end of apartheid, died on December 5, 2013. He was 95. Nelson Mandela, the prisoner-turned-president who reconciled South Africa after the end of apartheid, died on December 5, 2013. He was 95.
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
The evolution of Nelson Mandela The evolution of Nelson Mandela
Mourners sing outside the home of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on Monday, December 9. The revered statesman, who emerged from prison to lead South Africa out of apartheid, died on Thursday, December 5. Mandela was 95. Mourners sing outside the home of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on Monday, December 9. The revered statesman, who emerged from prison to lead South Africa out of apartheid, died on Thursday, December 5. Mandela was 95.
World reacts to Mandela's death
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: World reacts to Mandela\'s death Photos: World reacts to Mandela's death
Ambassador: U.S. joins us in our grief
In Mandela's own words
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
In Mandela\'s own words In Mandela's own words

He loomed large in the actions of activists and politicians; he inspired music and movies.

Here's a look at Mandela's impact on the United States:

ACTIVISM

It began with a financial boycott, of sorts.

Students on campuses across the country in the late 1970s called for their universities and colleges to divest from investments in South Africa.

That led to sit-ins and protest marches that by the mid-1980s drew thousands.

"We had marches day after day, thousands of people got arrested in Washington, D.C.," civil rights attorney Charles Ogletree said. "They were all released and ultimately not charged with any offense. Because it was a national issue -- black, white, male, female, people on the left and right, everybody was involved in it."

In 1986, Rep. Ron Dellums, D-California, sponsored a bill that called for a full trade embargo against South Africa as well as divestment by American companies. The bill, which passed the House, was vetoed by then-President Ronald Reagan. Congress then overrode the veto.

Today, this type of activism -- financial boycotts -- have become a protest staple. For example, fast food workers called this week for a boycott of their respective restaurants to protest low wages.

Nelson Mandela: 10 surprising facts you probably didn't know

POPULAR CULTURE

It began in 1985 with musician Steven Van Zandt's "Sun City," a song that protested the South African policy of apartheid.

The music brought together such musical powerhouses as Bruce Springsteen, Run DMC, Bonnie Raitt, Miles Davis, George Clinton, Jackson Browne and dozens more to record the single and video.

Bernice King: Mandela was a gentle giant

That was followed in 1986 with the release of Paul Simon's "Graceland," which featured South African musicians -- including Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

South African artist John Adams works on a giant painting of Nelson Mandela in a suburb of Johannesburg. Mandela, an anti-apartheid icon and Nobel peace laureate, endured 27 years in prison before becoming South Africa's first democratically elected president. Click through the gallery for other artistic tributes to "the world's most famous political prisoner." South African artist John Adams works on a giant painting of Nelson Mandela in a suburb of Johannesburg. Mandela, an anti-apartheid icon and Nobel peace laureate, endured 27 years in prison before becoming South Africa's first democratically elected president. Click through the gallery for other artistic tributes to "the world's most famous political prisoner."
Global tributes to Nelson Mandela
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Global tributes to Nelson Mandela Photos: Global tributes to Nelson Mandela
Bernard Shaw: Mandela was 'forgiving'

Simon on Thursday praised Mandela as one of the world's greatest teachers.

Pres. Obama reflects on Mandela's impact

"He conceived a model for mortal enemies to overcome their hatred and find a way through compassion to rebuild a nation based on truth, justice and the power of forgiveness," the singer said in a statement to CNN. "His passing should reignite a worldwide effort for peace."

On Thursday, the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem -- that hosted so many of these artists -- paid tribute to Mandela. Its marquee said, simply: "He changed our world."

Hollywood was a long-time supporter of Mandela's fight against apartheid, releasing a number of movies inspired by the civil rights leader's plight.

"We count ourselves unspeakably fortunate to have been immersed in Nelson Mandela's story and legacy," said Harvey Weinstein, whose company is releasing the biopic "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" this month.

A number of Hollywood heavyweights have portrayed Mandela, including Danny Glover, Sidney Poitier and Terrance Howard. Morgan Freeman earned an Oscar nomination for best actor for his portrayal of Mandela in "Invictus."

The latest to step into the role is Idris Elba, who plays the South African leader in "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom."

"What an honor it was to step into the shoes of Nelson Mandela and portray a man who defied odds, broke down barriers, and championed human rights before the eyes of the world," Elba said.

How one British pop song helped to free Nelson Mandela

POLITICS

Perhaps nowhere is Mandela's influence more evident that on America's politicians.

As a student at the University of California, Berkeley, California Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner participated in the divestment protests in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

So when Mandela was released and the South African government began its transition, "I think we felt like were part of that," Skinner said.

She learned of Mandela's death during a Democratic caucus in California.

"That strategic, spiritual, political leadership has no equal," she said.

President Obama recounted to the nation on Thursday how he drew inspiration from Mandela during his first public speech.

"My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid. I studied his words and his writings," he said in a televised address shortly after Mandela's death was announced.

"And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set, and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him."

"He no longer belongs to us," Obama said. "He belongs to the ages."

Nelson Mandela: A man of many handshakes

CNN's Catherine Shoichet and Greg Botelho contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 15, 2013 -- Updated 1728 GMT (0128 HKT)
Candles are lit under a portrait of Neslon Mandela before the funeral ceremony of South African former president Nelson Mandela in Qunu on December 15, 2013.
As 95 candles glowed in the background, mourners gathered for Nelson Mandela's state funeral Sunday.
December 15, 2013 -- Updated 1136 GMT (1936 HKT)
One candle burns for each year of Nelson Mandela's life, as family, friends, dignitaries and celebrities gather in his ancestral home, Qunu.
December 15, 2013 -- Updated 1036 GMT (1836 HKT)
CNN's Robyn Curnow is inside the Mandela family compound in Qunu as the state funeral service is ongoing.
December 15, 2013 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
Don't expect the man who fought to end apartheid and then led South Africa as its first black president to spend eternity pushing up just daisies.
December 15, 2013 -- Updated 0350 GMT (1150 HKT)
Not only is Nelson Mandela the former president of South Africa, but he is also a father, grandfather and even a great-grandfather.
December 15, 2013 -- Updated 0413 GMT (1213 HKT)
Nelson Mandela once said his wife, Graca Machel, makes him "bloom like a flower."
December 15, 2013 -- Updated 0849 GMT (1649 HKT)
South African pays tribute and thanks Nelson Mandela at the former leader's funeral in Qunu.
December 15, 2013 -- Updated 0845 GMT (1645 HKT)
South African President Jacob Zuma sings at the funeral of Nelson Mandela.
December 15, 2013 -- Updated 0725 GMT (1525 HKT)
Anti-apartheid veteran Ahmed Kathrada spent 26 years imprisoned with his close friend and confidant Nelson Mandela.
December 15, 2013 -- Updated 0408 GMT (1208 HKT)
The coffin carrying Nelson Mandela's body arrived Saturday in his ancestral village of Qunu, where he'll be buried.
December 14, 2013 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Crowds gather as Nelson Mandela's funeral convoy arrives at Mthatha Airport in South Africa's Eastern Cape.
December 13, 2013 -- Updated 1932 GMT (0332 HKT)
Beloved icon Nelson Mandela will be laid to rest on the farm where he grew up. CNN's Robyn Curnow gives an inside look.
December 13, 2013 -- Updated 1644 GMT (0044 HKT)
It might be timely to put aside out-of-date and ill-informed views of Africa, and see it the way Africans seem to: With a high level of optimism.
December 6, 2013 -- Updated 0440 GMT (1240 HKT)
Mandela emerged from prison to lead his country out of racist apartheid rule with a message of reconciliation that inspired the world.
December 6, 2013 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The late South African President reflects on his imprisonment and his fight against apartheid.
December 10, 2013 -- Updated 1457 GMT (2257 HKT)
Nelson Mandela, hailed for leading South Africa out of apartheid, wanted to be remembered as part of a collective and not in isolation.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Nelson Mandela
From revolutionary to revered statesman, Nelson Mandela left his inspirational mark on the world.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 1019 GMT (1819 HKT)
The only known footage of Nelson Mandela while at Robben Prison shows inside his cell and the former president in 1977.
December 6, 2013 -- Updated 1745 GMT (0145 HKT)
Mandela spent almost three decades in jail. But he had two Indian goddesses and a 17th century playwright for company.
December 6, 2013 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
He was loved and admired the world over, profiled in books and movies. But even he has little-known facts buried in his biographies.
December 5, 2013 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
A file photo showing South African Nelson Mandela taking the presidential oath on May 10, 1994 during his inauguration at the Union Building in Pretoria.
April 27, 1994, was the crowning moment in Nelson Mandela's life -- the day South Africa held its first elections open to citizens of every race.
From a village birth, to political activism, to prison and emergence as a worldwide leader.
December 5, 2013 -- Updated 2340 GMT (0740 HKT)
"No one is born hating another person ..." and more from Nelson Mandela in his own words
December 6, 2013 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
South African former President Nelson Mandela holds the Jules Rimet World cup, 15 May 2004 at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich.
"Sport has the power to change the world," Nelson Mandela once said -- and eloquently supported his claim.
June 27, 2013 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Browse through intimate images of Nelson Mandela, including the earliest known photograph believed to be taken in 1938.
December 6, 2013 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
The Special AKA's "Free Nelson Mandela" became anti-apartheid anthem, and led to Mandela's release from prison after 27 years.
How will you remember Mandela? Send us your stories, memories and photographs.
ADVERTISEMENT