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As Nelson Mandela Turns 95, Boston Celebrates His Legacy

BOSTON — People around the world are celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday Thursday, including here in Boston, where many are taking part in a day of community service to honor the anti-apartheid activist.

Mandela Day is a global call for action, celebrating the idea that each individual has the power to transform the world, the ability to have an impact.

A portrait representing former South African President Nelson Mandela is displayed on the windows of a building in downtown Cape Town, South Africa on Thursday. (Schalk van Zuydam/AP)

A portrait representing Nelson Mandela is displayed on the windows of a building in downtown Cape Town, South Africa on Thursday. (Schalk van Zuydam/AP)

This year, as the first democratically elected president of South Africa lies critically ill, there is a move here in Boston to honor his legacy and contributions to the culture of peace and freedom.

Former Boston Judge Margaret Burnham, now a law professor at Northeastern University, was selected by Mandela to help South Africa transition to full democratic rule and says this day honors Mandela’s activism

“All across the world, citizens of the world will be celebrating Mandela Day,” Burnham said. “It’s a day of service.”

That’s in keeping with the U.N. resolution calling on people worldwide to donate 67 minutes of time working for a favorite charity. That’s one minute for each year of Mandela’s activism, starting from his days as a political leader, his years as a human rights attorney, his decades as a political prisoner, then ultimately winning the Nobel Peace Prize and becoming the first black president of South Africa.

Burnham helped plan Mandela’s first visit to the U.S. 23 years ago.

“When he came to Boston in June 1990, he said the example that Boston has been will always be a diamond in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid,” Burnham said. “I recall him saying that Boston’s contribution was special and unique to those fighting in South Africa.”

Boston was one of eight U.S. cities that Mandela visited on that trip in 1990. He’d only been out of prison for four months, after 27 years behind bars. At the time, South Africa’s state of emergency had only been partially lifted.

That freedom followed a worldwide campaign of pressure against South Africa’s white ruled government, a key element of which was the divestiture movement.

In the U.S., that included legislation introduced by state Rep. Mel King of the South End. Historian Byron Rushing succeeded King in the state Legislature.

“The campaign began by getting states to agree to withdraw their pension funds from companies that were doing business in South Africa,” Rep. Rushing explained. “Massachusetts was the first state to do that. That happened in 1982.”

Rep. Rushing is one of the organizers of Boston’s Mandela Day activities.

“It’s very important for us in this city to always recognize our progressive history and just like we like to talk about the fact this was a city of abolitionists in the 19th century, this was also a city of anti-apartheid work in the 20th century,” Rep. Rushing said. “When we honor Nelson Mandela, I hope we understand that we are honoring ourselves and all the work that we have done.”

Organizers say the overarching objective of Mandela Day is to inspire individuals to act locally to bring about global change for good.

The day’s events will culminate with Gov. Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino leading a service at 5:30 p.m. at the Old South Church in Copley Square.

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