Nelson Mandela’s Legacy Should Inspire Action
In a time and place where it can be difficult to find a role model, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more principled man than the patriarch of South African democracy, Nelson Mandela. The global news media has and will extensively cover the death of this 95 year old icon,but I’d like to focus on something else: making sure Mandela lives on through his works – and through our work as well.
Spending the better portion of three decades in jail for your beliefs is an unimaginable sacrifice, but those dark days eventually saw Mandela’s dream realized. We witnessed the end of apartheid, and “Madiba” went from a prisoner to the president of his home nation. His work with the African National Congress was instrumental not just to his personal success, but to the growth and success of his country. As we approach the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s first multiracial democratic elections, it’s not just time to recognize the change that Mandela has brought to his country: it’s time for us to make our own strides for the fair and equal treatment of those around us, no matter your age, race, or station in life.
The fight in front of us is a continuation of the work of Mandela, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and of so many civil rights leaders before and after them. We have suffrage for women and minorities, but we must make sure it remains unfettered by voter ID laws or other obstructions. We have minorities in our society who own their own businesses and head corporations, but we need to cultivate a pipeline to make sure generations to come can enjoy the progress of those before them. We have programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), but we must fight to continue the program, and raise those who need help out of poverty. Our social programs must become more than a way to feed those who need it – they must work to revive and sustain this country’s battered middle class.
The modern conveniences of life are a far cry from the struggles and tension of 40 or 50 years ago, there’s no question. That doesn’t mean the fight for equality and civil rights are over. It certainly doesn’t mean we should be so oblivious to the news around us that we risk giving up rights without knowing it. Perhaps the fight isn’t black versus white anymore, but there’s still work to be done. This point couldn’t have been made any clearer when, on June 25, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 (and effectively Section 5 as well) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Several states, including North Carolina and Mississippi, are proposing bills employing tactics such as gerrymandering and voter ID laws to disenfranchise thousands of voters – which, as we all learned in 2000, is enough to shape national politics.
I was born a U.S. citizen, but I’m still passionate about immigration policy and a path to citizenship. I’m heterosexual, but I still speak out about and believe in marriage equality. I say that because having YOUR rights is just a start – acquiring OUR rights, the same rights for everyone, was the goal all along – and it’s time we all remembered that one person does not make a society. I know that many of you reading this may not be part of the problem – but again, getting your friends and family involved is the key. Remind them that all of us constitute the society, and we must strengthen every link in the chain if we wish to grow as a group.
“I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.” – Nelson Mandela
I also believe it is time to look beyond individual needs or posturing via political party, and instead take more of a utilitarian approach. In short, utilitarianism preaches that the morally correct action is the one that brings the most good to a given group of people. While the money-hungry nature of the U.S. Congress makes it difficult to start at the federal level, perhaps it’s time to gather your friends and start your movement at the local level. Don’t hesitate to get informed – and if the answer’s not easy to find, don’t let that stop you. If it takes talking to an alderman, city council member or other officials, don’t hesitate and be persistent. If they’re not doing their jobs, vote for someone who will – or better yet, consider a run of your own. We need more figures like Wendy Davis in the world, and we need them before special interests and political action committees buy this country out and turn it into the United States of America, Inc.
I’d like to end on this thought: It can be very painful to lose a relative, friend, or mentor – especially when that person does so much for everyone around them. In hindsight, however, it can inspire you to honor their legacy. I give blood regularly and donate money to charities because that’s some of the work my mother did before she died several years ago. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about society before then, but it was a reminder that we all must strive to live outside of our little bubble – outside of our friends, our favorite hangouts, our favorite TV shows or sporting events. You don’t have to start a political party and run for president right away – but there are little things that you can do. Donate to a charity of your choice, or a person or organization that you believe can make a difference. You can volunteer, or start your own group – giving more time and energy is what we really need every day. You’d be amazed what you can do with an hour of your time or a few dollars’ worth of help every week. There are entirely too many of us with the time and wherewithal to help that do nothing. That’s a disgrace to the people like Mandela – men and women who gave what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” in the fight for freedom and equality.
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