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Remarks at Nelson Mandela Memorial Service

December 14, 2013
Remarks at Nelson Mandela Memorial Service

First Baptist Church, Raleigh, NC - Generations of Americans, and champions of freedom and justice throughout the world, have been inspired by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous observation that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

But rarely have we witnessed this moral arc correspond so perfectly to the life of one man, Nelson Mandela, whom President Obama has accurately called “the last great liberator of the 20th century.”

Many of us here came of age during the Civil Rights struggle, at a time when our nation’s own apartheid - injustices enshrined in law – were to a significant degree overcome by the sacrifices and collective action of thousands of Americans, both famous and unknown.

We know that the American struggle was a source of hope and inspiration to Mandela and his ANC sisters and brothers as they built a disciplined, patient, and ultimately successful movement to overcome the evils of apartheid in South Africa. We know that the courage and perseverance of the men and women and children who withstood fire hoses and dogs and the relentless taunts and insults of their neighbors helped him endure the solitude and inhumanity of his long imprisonment on Robben Island.

For those of us who grew up profoundly shaped by our country’s own struggle, watching from afar as Mandela’s struggle became his nation’s struggle, then his continent’s struggle, and then the world’s struggle – and, just as importantly, the grace, forgiveness and inclusiveness he showed as the freely elected leader of his people – became both an inspiration and a challenge to us in return.

The South African Ambassador to the United States captured this sense of our interconnected moral struggles well earlier this week at the Washington National Cathedral:

  • We must not so much fear the Casspirs of Soweto or the dogs of Alabama, but we must fear the fading of our memory, we must fear forgetting where we come from, who we are, what we stand for and where we must still go;
  • We must not fear so much the whips of Mitchells Plain or the batons of Selma, but we must fear the disconnectedness and the insularity, the individualism and the selfishness that tells us that poverty is because of laziness, disease because of immorality, and violence because of our genes, and that we are not each other’s keepers;
  • We must not fear so much the lynchings of the South or the bullets of Sharpeville, but we must fear the deadening of our consciousness and its attendant complacency that will tell us that our struggle is over and the “post racial” dawn has arrived because Nelson Mandela strode the Union Buildings and Barack Obama occupies the White House.

Or, as our own President said so eloquently at Mandela’s memorial in Soweto:

  • …in America, and in South Africa, and in countries all around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not yet done… Around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease. We still see rundown schools. We still see young people without prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned [and persecuted] for their political beliefs... for what they look like, how they worship, and whom they love.
  • And so we, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace….

On this somber occasion, let us reject complacency, disconnectedness, and selfishness and rededicate ourselves to striving constantly, in our own lives and communities, to continue bending that great arc, which Nelson Mandela understood so well, toward justice.