Traverse City Record-Eagle


December 8, 2013

George Weeks: Michigan ties of Nelson Mandela

Africa for the Africans — Ex-Gov. G. Mennen Williams

Global icon Nelson Mandela, the 1994-97 South Africa president whose death last week had worldwide coverage seldom seen, had Michigan ties.

He came to Michigan for two days, including a memorable speech in Tiger Stadium, in June 1990 as part of an 11-city U.S. tour, just four months after release from 27 years of imprisonment for his anti-apartheid crusade against color-based segregation under white rule.

Mandela had some Michigan heroes, including 1937-49 World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, and he met in Detroit with civil rights icon Rose Parks. Furthermore, then-wife Willie Mandela wanted to, and did, meet with Motown singer Aretha Franklin.

Gov. James J. Blanchard and his wife, Janet, were among those greeting Mandela upon his arrival in Michigan.

Former Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, then President John F. Kennedy’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs, was an American champion of Mandela’s fight against racism.

Before a planned visit to South Africa, it was in what was then white-ruled Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) that Williams said he favored Africa for Africans.

A miffed white-ruled South Africa then said a Williams’ visit was “not convenient” and cancelled it. (It’s a sorry memory for me since I had been scheduled to cover the trip for UPI.)

Among world leaders, an especially eloquent reaction to Mandela’s death was from British Prime Minister David Cameron: “One of the brightest lights of our world has gone out.”

It should be noted that Mandela worldwide was often a divisive figure and at some times among authorities in the United States and elsewhere viewed as associated with terrorism. He was chummy with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who was a supporter while Mandel was in prison.

Among Michigan leaders, Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week, “In a world that is in too many plaes being ripped apart by violence, his example of the power of nonviolence provides a shining alternative.”

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