SOWETO, South Africa -- The FNB Stadium was blanketed by low-hanging clouds, cool temperatures, strong winds and continuous rain during the state memorial service for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. But nothing could dampen the celebration attended by nearly a hundred heads of state and 55,000 to 60,000 South Africans.
During the 13-hour flight from JFK to Johannesburg, I recalled memories of President Mandela and the brutal history of apartheid that led to the amazing transformation of a nation dominated by oppression, hopelessness and hate into one where love, forgiveness and reconciliation swept the people.
I listened all night to the songs of Miriam Makeba, the giant of a talent whose music inspired her African brothers and sisters to believe in what they could not see, to put a floor on the despair caused by apartheid and a roof over the people's dreams of freedom.
I imagined the 69 people murdered in the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the hundreds of children murdered in 1976 in Soweto cheering wildly as their hero joined them in an afterlife.
I have had my bags packed and my passport in my briefcase ever since Mandela became ill this summer. I knew I had to be there to honor him as one more thank you for inspiring my life since I worked in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. I lionized people in the United States who were willing to make great sacrifices to move freedom and equality to the forefront. I mourned deeply while being grateful for their lives when Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. I admired when United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez went on a series of hunger strikes that threatened his own life, and when Muhammad Ali was willing to risk his boxing career so he would not have to fight in Vietnam.
When Nelson Mandela was on trial for sabotage in April of 1964, he got a life sentence which resulted in his now well documented 27 years in prison. In his opening statement of defense, he said, "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
No statement hit me harder.
As a Ph.D. student in African Studies and international race relations, I studied Mandela's early speeches. As an activist in the anti-apartheid movement, I ended every speech I gave on apartheid with that quote.
Mandela became an even greater part my life as I became more active and helped found the American sports boycott of South Africa. He was at once the symbol of oppression and resistance.
Since his passing there has been a global outpouring of love such as I have never seen. The anticipation of today's event was enormous inside and outside South Africa.
A large choir opened with the national anthem. In and of itself the anthem is a tribute to Mandela's work to bring black and white South Africans together. Since 1997, the South African national anthem has been a blended song. It combines new English lyrics with extracts of "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" and "Die Stem van Suid-Afrika," which previously had been the anthems of blacks and whites, respectively.
That was followed by interfaith prayers led by a rabbi, a priest, a minister and an imam. More togetherness, but it was real.
Andrew Mlangeni, a Mandela family friend and fellow prisoner on Robben Island, spoke first before three of Mandela's grandchildren fondly reminisced about the world leader as a leader of the family.
For me, the two most eloquent speakers from the list of world leaders were United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President Barack Obama. You could tell that Mandela had really impacted them. Obama got the only standing ovation after a speech that reminded me of his brilliant remarks during his first campaign for the presidency. This meant something important to him. For me and so many others, Nelson Mandela shaped us in our most important years of developing an understanding of the world.
For years I have been concerned -- like many others -- about what will happen when the bonding force that Mandela was in South Africa is gone. It may be that the current president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, is simply unpopular right now, but when he spoke, the stadium filled with boos. The same was true when the camera panned to him during the service. When it hit President Obama, the stadium filled with enthusiastic cheers.
Mandela and Obama, the first two democratically elected black presidents in South Africa and the United States. History makers both, but we know that Mandela's historical status is secure. It is another reason why his philosophy of fighting for freedom followed by love, forgiveness and reconciliation has led to the possibilities that South Africa now has.
As I walked toward the car, I went back to my thoughts on the plane ride of a time decades ago when I was told that the prisoners on Robben Island had heard on the radio that there were protests against South Africa's apartheid in sports. It was the first sign that the global community was coming together to help free others.
I hope, in that moment, as Mandela awaited freedom in his prison cell that our efforts returned some of the inspiration he gave.