U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Nelson Mandela and American Civil Religion

As Nelson Mandela was laid to rest in South Africa earlier this morning, I couldn’t help but think about the massive media coverage his passing has garnered all over the world. It makes perfect sense. Mandela was a figure of resistance and freedom to the people of many nations. For South Africa, of course, Mandela means the most as both a real, flesh and blood leader, and as a symbol. Whenever someone becomes a symbol, it offers up serious questions of why that person is a symbol and how he or she became that symbol. The imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, his symbol as a living martyr, his importance in leading South Africa through a perilous time period, and ultimately his ability to bring together a fractured nation: these are all reasons why he’s important in South Africa. Indeed, if one were to write about civil religion in South Africa, Mandela’s presence within it would be immense.

            Today what I’d like to talk about is not Mandela’s stature within South African civil religion, but his presence within American civil religion. Now, before we move on I think it’s important to ask one simple question: what role can a foreign-born person, who never occupied a political office in the United States, was never allied alongside America in a major war, have in American civil religion? I would argue that, with a figure such as Mandela, they can play a major role in American civil religion. mandelacongress

            One of the moments that best describes what I’m getting at in regards to Mandela is his 1990 tour of the United States. At the time, he had just been released from prison in South Africa. In the U.S., there was still some serious debate about the future of South Africa’s government due to sanctions and the growing power of the African National Congress (ANC). Looking back on the 1990 tour, it almost takes on the stature of the visit of a world leader. Which, in large part, Mandela already was.

            I think it’s interesting to think about the cities Mandela visited. He went to Atlanta and placed wreath on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tomb. Mandela went to New York City and announced that he was a Yankee for life. Detroit was another place of interest for Mandela, as he announced his solidarity with the United Auto Workers (and met a personal hero of his, Rosa Parks). He also went to Washington, D.C. to meet President George H.W. Bush, Los Angeles, Boston, Oakland, and Miami. Of course, these are all major American cities, in which Mandela was attempting to raise money for the ANC. But, with the exception of Miami, all of these cities were important in one way or another to the Civil Rights Movement. They also all had a large Black populations, enthusiastic about meeting the man who’d been mentioned so much in South African song, yet was shrouded in some mystery until the summer of 1990.

            For Black Americans, the importance of Mandela’s release from prison, and the fall of the Apartheid regime in 1994, cannot be underestimated. I argue that a “Black Public Sphere” helped create the conditions for his release.[1] Ebony magazine’s May 1990 cover featured Mandela, and inside was a lengthy exclusive interview with Mandela. The links between the Civil Rights Movement and the push to end Apartheid were a key part of the interview. When asked by journalist D. Michael Cheers about the similarities and differences between the anti-Apartheid movement and the struggle in the 1960s US, Mandela was clear: “Yes, you are correct, there are many similarities between us. We have learned a great deal from each other. It is important, especially now, that those bonds remain strong and committed.”[2]

            Mandela’s importance to African Americans circa 1990, I would argue, can’t be separated from larger cultural trends for Blacks in the same time period. Think of the rise of hip hop groups such as Public Enemy, or the 1992 release of Malcolm X (which even features a cameo by Mandela himself at the end). I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to say it was a rise of a neo-Black nationalism, but it was an era of serious intellectual and cultural output by Black Americans.[3] His role within a Black American civil religion can’t be debated, in my opinion. His 1990 tour was only an example of his stature within the Black community at that point. For most Americans, I think Mandela’s stature is not just due to his heroism. In some sense, I’d argue it’s a symptom of a cynical society that, in American politics at least, has no reason to honor most American political leaders with the type of reverence that Mandela received.

            The statue of Nelson Mandela seems pure, at least as it’s portrayed in the media. Serious debates are to be had about his legacy, and those are already beginning among South Africans. We all know about the differences between memory and history, and those are very important to the creation of civil religion in any nation. Mandela occupies a special place in civil religion, similar to that of a Winston Churchill or another foreign leader upheld by Americans: someone who we frankly wish would lead Americans, someone that we’d want our own leaders to emulate. Whether or not that squares with the complex humanity of such figures…well, complexity is what we historians are all about.


[1] I’m thinking especially of the book The Black Public Sphere (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

[2] “Nelson Mandela: A Special Message to African Americans,” Ebony, May 1990, p. 180.

[3] There’s a really interesting ferment of Black political, intellectual, and cultural forces from 1983 through 1995: the election of Black mayors in Chicago and New York City; Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 runs in the Democratic Party primaries;  the role of the Congressional Black Caucus in sanctions against South Africa; the popularity of The Cosby Show and A Different World; various films being made such as Malcolm X, Boyz n the Hood, and Glory; the 1995 Million Man March; and the ideas and debates around Critical Race theory, as well as the rise of Black public intellectuals such as Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Toni Morrison, and others. Maybe I’ll come back to this…stay tuned.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Apartheid was the last wall for the people, arguments, and emotions of the glorious and successful Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to push against. [By contrast, the antiwar movement cast about for a new wall and found only the pathetic No Nukes riff.]

    With the fall of the last wall of institutionalized anti-black racism, the question became how to hold the CRM coalition without something to push against together.

    There’s a really interesting ferment of Black political, intellectual, and cultural forces from 1983 through 1995: the election of Black mayors in Chicago and New York City; Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 runs in the Democratic Party primaries; the role of the Congressional Black Caucus in sanctions against South Africa; the popularity of The Cosby Show and A Different World; various films being made such as Malcolm X, Boyz n the Hood, and Glory; the 1995 Million Man March; and the ideas and debates around Critical Race theory, as well as the rise of Black public intellectuals such as Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Toni Morrison, and others.

    That seems a fairly comprehensive list, and it quite conspicuously pales next to the victories over Jim Crow and apartheid.

    As for Mandela himself, the victory over apartheid was inevitable with or without him; it was in his ability to reconcile a broken country where his greatness lay: History seldom reveals its alternatives, but in this case Mugabe’s Zimbabwe sits right next door.

  2. Oh, I’m not comparing what I have in my footnote to the actual victories over Jim Crow or Apartheid. I’m just saying that there’s a lot going on in terms of cultural politics, as well as some interesting intellectual trends as well.

  3. What interests me more is how old boogie men are neutralized by being made into saints. We’ve seen that process with Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, FDR, and George Orwell, all of whom were leftists or liberals who would be roundly denounced if the rose from their graves and continued to advocate for what they advocated before. Of course the grand example is Jesus Christ since most of the institutional and ideological substance of Christianity is the scar tissue that formed over the wound in human sensibility he caused long ago. If you can’t burn ’em at the stake, you can petrify ’em in marble at the monument.

    • Very interesting, Jim.

      OTOH, the beauty [and purpose] of hagiography is so that the good that men do lives after them; the evil is oft interred with their bones. Each had saintly aspects, each also had a dark side which is largely hidden from view.

      For example

      http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/07/the-madness-of-cesar-chavez/308557/

      But fortunately, evil is as common as dirt, and that it covers us all is hardly worth noting–so we don’t, at least once they’re dead.

      As for their “leftism,” MLK was already irrelevant by 1966; “By the time of Chavez’s death, the powerful tide of union contracts for California farmworkers, which the grape strike had seemed to augur, had slowed to the merest trickle” [see link above]; Orwell’s value lay most in recognizing tyranny and dystopia long before most of the world’s leftist elite [who still owe humanity an apology]; and of course we’re still paying on FDR’s beatific vision–indeed continuing to double down on it over and over, ala the Martingale System, which as we know always breaks even, fortunately.

      As for that Jesus fellow, there is much more to his religion than mere Beatitudism.

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