Sunday, December 08, 2013

Tavis Smiley remembers Nelson Mandela

Tavis Smiley

Thursday night, Tavis Smiley devoted his program, The Tavis Smiley Show (PBS) to Nelson Mandela's passing with guests Harry Belafonte, US House Rep. Maxine Waters and Larry King.  At the end of the program, Tavis shared when he first met Mandela:

Tonight I want to share with you a very personal memory I have of the man. I was a young assistant to L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, and Nelson Mandela was coming to our city.

I remember the day like it was yesterday – for days prior I couldn’t sleep through the night, anxious with anticipation. Mandela was coming to Los Angeles, and I was plotting how I could position myself to actually meet him, to shake his hand, hug him, maybe even take a photo with him.

I was working overtime trying to devise a strategy that might find me, say, hiding in a closet in the mayor’s office until he arrived for a private meeting with my boss, Mayor Bradley, and a public rally to follow on the steps of city hall.

Mandela was the deputy president of the African National Congress and L.A. was one of the final stops on a grueling 12-day, eight-city U.S. tour – part of a planned six-week international tour following his release from prison after 27 years.

I was just a 25-year-old junior aide to Mayor Bradley back then. I realized as I thought of Mandela and what he had endured that he had been imprisoned for his beliefs longer than I’d been living at the time.

There was no way, really, hard as I tried, that I was going to outwit or avoid what I now know to be a pretty standard building sweep by the Secret Service prior to the arrival of dignitaries and heads of state, and so sure enough, before Nelson and Winnie Mandela arrived the Secret Service forced everybody out of the mayor’s suite – everyone except the mayor’s LAPD security team.

Now I could tell by the route Mandela was taking inside for the meeting and back out to the steps of city hall for that rally that there was no way I was going to get even close to Mr. Mandela.

So I decided to stand outside with the tens of thousands of other fellow citizens in downtown L.A. who’d come to cheer and celebrate the rarest of human beings.

I have always regarded Dr. King as the greatest American this country’s ever produced, but Dr. King was dead long before I was even out of diapers. Here comes now a freedom fighter who represents the closest thing to King’s courage that I may ever meet, but I was stuck outside, pouting.

Until someone yelled to me that the mayor was asking for me. The Secret Service lets me back inside city hall and I moved quickly through the hallways, now filled with Mandela’s entourage, to see what the mayor needed.

All the while, I am looking for a glimpse of Nelson and Winnie Mandela myself. The mayor whispers to me that of all the celebrities and personalities who had assembled on the lawn that day at city hall, Mandela wanted to personally greet Muhammad Ali and Sidney Poitier before he went outside to speak at the rally.
My job as a young aide? To go outside, to escort Ali and Poitier back into the mayor’s office. Oh, my God – my heartbeat accelerated so fast. I immediately ran outside and secured Ali and Poitier as I’d been told.
When I opened the security door to the long hallway that led to the mayor’s personal office and Mandela’s entourage saw Ali and Poitier walking toward them – well, I don’t even have the language to describe the chants, the dancing, the full-face smiles, the love, the joy, the sheer ecstasy in that hallway as we walked toward Nelson and Winnie Mandela, standing alongside Mayor Bradley.

It is true that life is not so much about the breath that we take but rather about those moments that take our breath away – those precious memories. I have relived this moment countless times since hearing of 

Mandela’s passing, and every time I think on it, I get joy unspeakable.

From that day I was able to start friendships with two iconic Americans – Ali and Poitier. My life and my work have been greatly enriched and influenced by their gifts and by their friendship.

As for Mandela, I didn’t get to sit for a conversation with him that day, but I did get a handshake, and I got my hug.

What could be more inspiring for a 25-year-old African American male wanting to make a meaningful contribution to society? That handshake and that hug had meant more to me than words could ever express.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }