US & Canada

Mandela death: Americans shaped by his words and actions

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Media captionAfrican Americans in New York City give their reaction to the death of Nelson Mandela

Growing up African American and poor in the US was hard. But Nelson Mandela had it harder, and in his life generations of Americans striving for racial equality in their own country found inspiration.

George Henderson's father was run out of his home in Hurtsboro, Alabama, by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s. He was five, and he and his family - his parents were sharecroppers - moved to Indiana.

Things were better, but not by much.

"We moved from the poverty of the south to the poverty of the north," he says. His family's experiences left a mark.

"I grew up as a young man being hateful of white people," he says. "Quite honestly I was a little black bigot."

Luckily he read - and learned more about the world. Eventually he joined the faculty at the University of Oklahoma. After he began teaching, one of his former professors sent him a book in the post.

"'He said, 'You need to find out more about this man. There's something there for you,'" says Mr Henderson, 81. "He didn't say anything more."

It was a book about Africa - with writings about Mr Mandela. Mr Henderson found he could not get enough. "He was my academic potato chip," he says.

"I would often lament how bad life was," he says. "I realised that our complaints paled compared to what he had to endure."

Like many Americans interested in civil rights, he fell under Mr Mandela's spell.

'Like more than the pope'

Joel Charny was working for an advocacy group, Oxfam America, in Boston when Mr Mandela was released from prison in 1990. Not long afterwards Mr Mandela visited Boston. Mr Charny remembers the day.

"It was sort of like more than the pope," he says.

LaNitra Walker, who eventually wrote a Duke University dissertation about a South African artist, was a schoolgirl in San Bernardino, California, when Mr Mandela was released from prison.

Image caption Shop owners have stocked up on T-shirts - a display in a Johannesburg in June

She had heard about him since she was a child. She remembers the way people wore black T-shirts bearing a photograph of Mr Mandela taken before he went to prison. ("I bet those shirts are going to come back now," she says.)

"There was always this big discussion in beauty shops and so on - people thought he was going to die in prison," she says.

"Then he was released. It was like people in Communist countries seeing the Berlin wall come down."

It is hardly surprising that Mr Mandela has consistently ranked among the top 10 most-admired men, according to Gallup polls dating back to the 1940s.

Compassion towards enemies

"There aren't many figures comparable to him," says Hendrik Hertzberg, a staff writer for the New Yorker. "George Washington, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln."

"When they were writing the constitution, he insisted on proportional representation," he says. "The divisions in South Africa were much more serious than the division that we have. And he had far more reason to feel contemptuous, especially of the former rulers.

"But he made sure that the white Afrikaners would be treated equally as citizens."

For Mr Hertzberg and others, he provided a profound lesson in how to live one's own life - and also how to work at changing the world.

When Mr Henderson heard about Mr Mandela's death, he thought back on the ways that he influenced him over the years. He used to cite his work in classes that he taught such as the History of Racism and Issues of Social Justice.

Image caption Americans remember Mandela through writings and art - here, a mural in Harlem

Mr Henderson also memorised passages from his speeches - and has kept quotes around the house. He went through his files at home in Norman, Oklahoma, and dug out a yellow scrap of paper on which he had written in 1968.

It was a quote from Mr Mandela. The handwriting was faded - but still legible.

"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society," Mr Mandela said. "It is an ideal for which I hope to live and to see realised but my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Nelson Mandela is dead. Yet his accomplishments and his words live on - in scraps of paper at Mr Henderson's house and in countless other places in the US and around in the world.