Washington (AFP) – Standing on the balcony outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on a clear and cool November day in 2000, Nelson Mandela couldn’t help but weep.
It was at that very spot where Martin Luther King was cut down by a sniper’s bullet 32 years earlier, cutting short the life of the U.S. civil rights crusader who had been such an inspiration to him.
“Many decades after that tragic event, I could not be composed,” the former South African president and anti-apartheid leader told a youthful crowd of 7,000 later that day.
“It was too heavy for me to bear,” he said, quoted on the day by the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper.
It took six years for the National Civil Rights Museum, which preserves King’s room at the Lorraine exactly as it was on the afternoon he died, to woo Mandela to Memphis to accept its Freedom Award.
Unlike previous recipients, however, he insisted on making the Lorraine, in the heart of what had been one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States, the first stop of his 24-hour stay.
“It clearly struck a chord with him,” recalled Faith Morris, the museum’s director of marketing, governmental and community affairs, in a phone interview Monday with AFP.
“He understood exactly what the fight was of Dr King. He was very thoughtful about the parallels of their lives,” she said.
“He got to live through his, and he lived a very long life. Dr. King did not enjoy that.”
Mandela, who died Friday at the age of 95, was four years into what would be 27 years of incarceration at Robben Island and other prisons when King was assassinated at the age of 39.
He would eventually join King as a Nobel peace prize laureate — but African-American social activist, author and radio commentator Jeff Johnson said they had many other things in common.
“There is a great deal of parallel,” Johnson told AFP, between the young King going to divinity school — preachers being strong voices of the civil rights struggle — and Mandela opting for law school, “preparing himself to be a leader and understanding the law he wanted to fight.”
Moreover, the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League that Mandela co-founded in 1944 shared the same vision of civil resistance as the young black Americans whose lunch-counter sit-ins in the segregated Deep South in 1960 and 1961 made race a national issue as never before.
“I think there was this shared reality of oppression in the two countries in the world that were probably more preoccupied with race than any others,” said Johnson by telephone from Baltimore, Maryland.
“This sisterhood of oppression created this brotherhood of activism,” he said.
Upon his release from prison, Mandela embraced the non-violent tenets of King and India’s Mahatma Gandhi, while recognizing the value of youth in pursuing change.
“Mandela understood that if (youth) could be incredibly aggressive and almost even scary, the powers-that-be would feel the need to have conversations with the senior statesmen in the ANC,” Johnson said.
“That is very similar to what we’ve seen in the civil rights movement, with there being aggressive shows of force by young people in the name of being willing to deal with some of those senior statesmen.”
Jessie Jackson, 72, underlined how the 1994 right to vote for black South Africans echoed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that guaranteed voting rights for African Americans.
“You cannot really separate (Mandela’s) career from Dr. King’s career,” the veteran civil rights activist and presidential hopeful, who was with King on the day he died, said Sunday on NBC television’s “Meet the Press.”
“He was shaped by persecution and (an) internal will to dignity,” Jackson said.
“And he did not internalize the system… He had a choice … to choose revenge or reconciliation. He chose reconciliation as a victor over that (apartheid) system.”