Nelson Mandela was referred to as a “civil rights leader” on NPR, and the NY Times called him an “emblem of peaceful resistance.” At the passing today of this good and great man, the “Revise-All-History-to-Your-Liking-Festivities” is set into high gear.
Nelson Mandela was a fierce freedom fighter and a loving revolutionary who led the wide popular movement that toppled apartheid and inspired the exploited and oppressed, the marginalized and down-trodden everywhere. He never called himself a “civil rights leader” nor “an emblem of peaceful resistance.” As a movement maker and a collective builder, he would never endorse President Obama’s statement that his life proved the power of one man with courage and vision to change the world.
Mandela was officially a “terrorist” according to the US government until long after the fight for freedom had been won. And as usual, those who opposed him and refused support when it would have counted, will invent a safe story of his life—one palatable to easy-listening Americans who want to be good, but not if it takes too much effort—and love that story to death.
If interested in the real reason Nelson Mandel went to jail for those many years, read his opening statement at the Rivonia Trial (Google it!)
In 2003 Bernardine and I found ourselves in the Press Room at the Sundance Film Festival facing journalists, critics, editors, and columnists in a series of radio interviews, TV spots, and brief Q and A dialogues. Minutes before “The Weather Underground” documentary had screened for the first time to a warm response—this was Park City, Utah after all, on the eve of the unpopular US invasion and occupation of Iraq—and a thumbs-up and a wink from Robert Redford who was sitting near the front of the theater. The two young film makers who’d mid-wifed the project for years were rapturous, a tidal wave of relief sweeping through them, cleansing and joyful and over-the-moon. Their baby was finally born, and all the labor, sweat, and tears seemed worth it after all. But ambitions were now expanding and expectations naturally rising; getting into Sundance was great news and reward enough a few months before, but now a commercial release, financing for their next project, maybe an Academy Award loomed on the horizon. The sky’s the limit! BillSiegel and Sam Greene had invited us to join them and their families and crew at Sundance, and now they looked to be on the far-side of giddy—happy-exhausted, adrenalin-fueled, and bouncing blissfully off the walls.
When her turn came around a young entertainment reporter for the Los Angeles Times asked a couple of questions about our lives and experiences underground—how had we stayed together for over three decades with all the chaos and madness in our lives, and did we really think a revolution was possible in America?—and then she said, “You seem so everyday normal, and I wonder why you didn’t follow the non-violent path of King and Gandhi and Mandela.” We were always asked about violence, an obvious and essential question when it came to anything Weather, but her question had an interesting twist. Mandela? Bernadine and I asked in unison. “Yes,” she repeated, “King and Gandhi and Mandela.”
“Do you know why Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years?” Bernardine asked.
“Well, for opposing apartheid,” she replied.
“Yes, that’s true,” Bernardine said, “and for organizing and leading an army—armed struggle, sabotage, the whole difficult deal. If you’re really interested, you ought to read his 1964 statement from the dock at the opening of the defense case in the Rivonia Trial where he admitted and defended all of it.”
“I will,” she said.
It made sense to put Nelson Mandela in the front lines of some imaginary League of Justice Heroes—his struggle for freedom throughout his life was exemplary, righteous, brave and laudable. And because he had achieved hero status by then inside the US it made some sense to conflate his work with others and to imagine him a non-violent saint—for Americans the world became less messy if we didn’t have to think too hard about complex choices, and if our heroes were all-good and without contradiction.
At his trial, where he stood as First Accused in a vast conspiracy against the state, Mandela reviewed his biography and the dreadful situation for Blacks in his homeland, and quickly claimed to have been one of the main organizers of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing in the fight against apartheid. He argued that years of non-violent struggle had brought nothing but greater repression and exploitation, and that the people demanded that they answer violence with violence and develop new channels toward liberation. The apartheid state never missed the opportunity to call Mandela and the ANC “terrorists,” even though the Rivonia trial made it crystal clear that “the violence which we chose to adopt was not terrorism.” Mandela made the case for choosing sabotage on government buildings and other symbols of apartheid as a way to inspire people without injuring or killing anyone. And he freely admitted his attraction to building a classless society, influenced, he said, from reading Marx and from admiring the structures and organization of early African societies—there were no rich or poor and there was no exploitation. The Rivonia speech was required reading for us in the late 1960’s, and I had several passages memorized.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. admired the ideal of a classless society too, and while the mythological King led a boycott, had a dream, won a Nobel, ended racism and made us all better people, the real King was a spirit-based pro-democracy activist and a deep analytical thinker, a loving pastor and an angry pilgrim on a quest for social justice in his times. He evolved and became more radical with every campaign he led, every resistance he encountered, and every step he took. When his journey and his mission led him to link racial justice to economic justice and global justice, he called for an end to the three great evils—racism, militarism, and materialism. He urged activists and creative dissenters to call the nation to a greater expression of humanness, echoing the blunt-talking Fannie Lou Hamer who, asked if she wanted full equality with the white man, responded that she didn’t want to go that low, but sought instead a real democracy and a rebirth of freedom that would lift a newly-enlightened America out of the morass in which it was stuck.
The real King repeatedly condemned the US government as the greatest purveyor of violence on earth—his heated sermons bring Jeremiah Wright into clearer context—and argued within the Movement for non-violent direct action as a principle for him, and as a necessary approach for the struggle as well: “We had neither the resources nor the techniques to win…The question was not whether one should use his gun when his home was attacked, but whether it was tactically wise to use a gun while participating in an organized demonstration.” If anyone looked closely at the photos of King and his family during the legendary bus boycott, they could just make out the background figures of Black men in chairs with shotguns on their laps—the legendary Deacons for Defense of Justice. King’s home was armed; Fannie Lou Hamer, too, let everyone know that she had an adequate arsenal near her bed. There was nothing passive in King’s pacifism, nothing docile or immobile in that non-violence.
None of this detracts in any way from the greatness of these struggles or the power of those lives—if anything reckoning with the contradictions they faced and the activist commitments they embodied made each of them even more admirable to me. Their non-violence showed the power of love and by design exposed the hidden violence lurking in the everyday. But it was their activism, not some vague principles from the armchair, that marked them, and it was the popular movements they inspired and led that defined them—each was part of a massive social upheaval, each took risks and acted in the world without any guarantees, and as the legendary Ella Baker said of King, “Martin didn’t make the Movement, the Movement made Martin.”