Nelson Mandela's impact

-- Kevin Powell is an activist, public speaker, and author or editor of 11 books, including "Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays." He is also the president of BK Nation, a new national and multicultural organization focused on civic engagement, leadership training, and volunteerism. Email him at or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell

The roar of 'Motortown'

I was working rewrite on the Detroit News city desk on the night in June 1990 when Nelson Mandela electrified a full house at Tiger Stadium a few months after his release from prison. I'll never forget the whole-body shiver I felt when he read four lines from Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," saying they were "a reflection of the South African condition":

Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying

Charmingly, he reversed the order of the lyrics and referred to the hometown record label as "Motortown." The crowd roared mightily, pleased at the reference.

I didn't dwell on the significance of the venue. It was the only place in the city that could have held an event on that scale at the time. Looking back on it now, the fact that he spoke at the grand old stadium -- a place that at least fleetingly brought joy to a racially torn city when its baseball team won the 1968 World Series -- was so very fitting.

A heavyweight boxer in his youth, Mandela was a fitness devotee and a lifelong, avid sports fan, including the 27 years of his incarceration, much of it at Robben Island.

"Prisoners from the general section painted the cement surface green and then fashioned the traditional configuration of white lines," he wrote in his autobiography, "The Long Walk to Freedom." "A few days later, a net was put up, and suddenly we had our own Wimbledon in our front yard. I pursued the sport for exercise, not style … I was a backcourt player, only rushing the net when I had a clean slam."

Mandela admired the sublime capabilities of elite athletes, and because of that passion, he understood the power of sports to call attention to a greater cause. He skipped his own presidential inauguration parties in 1994 and went to a soccer match instead, telling author and researcher Richard Lapchick he knew the country's athletes had suffered because of the international sporting boycotts that in turn accelerated political change.

Sporting icons Mandela welcomed into his life included Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe, but his embrace was color-blind. When South African swimmer Penny Heyns set a world record in the 100-meter breaststroke in 1996, he invited her to a private tea. When she won the nation's first Olympic gold medal in 44 years, he sent her a message saying, "You have done our country proud. You are our golden girl."

Heyns competed at the Atlanta Games with a Springbok tattooed on her left shoulder. That didn't lessen Mandela's pride. The profile of a leaping gazelle had long been synonymous with an oppressively racist regime, but Mandela had already converted it for good by giving South Africa's rugby team his blessing to keep it. Sport transcended mere symbolism in Mandela's life. In return, he recognized that an old symbol could come to represent a nation's new soul.

-- Bonnie Ford

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