Remembering Mandela's 1990 Visit To Boston

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Nelson Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95. One of the first stops for Mandela on his worldwide tour after being freed from prison was a visit to Boston. WBUR's Steve Brown covered that visit in June 1990 and has more on the day Mandela came to town.

BOSTON — Just four months after being released from Robben Island Prison, Nelson Mandela, perhaps the most noted political prisoner in the world, was welcomed by throngs of enthusiastic Bostonians at several stops around the city.

For Mandela, who would later become president of South Africa, the visit was personal. His daughter and her family came to Boston while he was in prison — a fact he admitted at first caused him some anxiety.

"But I was soon assured, and this anxiety disappeared, when I became aware that the leaders and the people of Boston stood behind our family and took over the task of being parents to my children," Mandela told well-wishers who welcomed him at Logan Airport.

Mandela wipes his brow in the hot, humid gymnasium of the Madison Park High School in Roxbury. (Jim Gerberich/AP)
Mandela wipes his brow in the hot, humid gymnasium of the Madison Park High School in Roxbury. (Jim Gerberich/AP)

Mandela offered some parental advice of his own, when he addressed a packed gymnasium at Madison Park High School in Roxbury, telling the crowd of mostly young people he was concerned about the large number of dropouts both in South Africa and in the United States.

"This is a very disturbing situation because the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow," he said.

Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey was among those on the stage with Mandela that afternoon.

"It was indeed a very exciting and momentous day for the city of Boston when we were honored with the presence of Nelson Mandela," said Yancey as he recently recalled Mandela's visit. "Nelson Mandela was very warm and compassionate and in his own way very humble. And he had this common touch; he was able to communicate with any and everyone."

Yancey said the city needed and benefited from Mandela's visit. At the time, Boston was still healing from strained race relations, a product of forced busing 15 years before.

After meeting with Madison Park students, Mandela headed to the Kennedy Library, where he met with members of the Kennedy family, including then-Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Mandela thanked them for the support he received over the years.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis walks with Nelson Mandela and Sen. Edward Kennedy through the JFK Library during Mandela’s June 1990 visit to Boston. (Peter Southwick/AP)
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis walks with Nelson Mandela and Sen. Edward Kennedy through the JFK Library. (Peter Southwick/AP)

"We know them for their deep commitment to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa — a commitment which was not just a mere question of words, a commitment which they tried to back up through action," Mandela said at a luncheon in his honor at the Kennedy Library in Dorchester.

The highlight of the day came when Mandela was greeted by an estimated quarter of a million people on the Charles River Esplanade.

"My delegation, my wife and I are deeply moved by the warmth and love your magnificent city has so generously accorded us," he said.

Raymond Flynn was mayor at the time and said he will never forget the moment.

"It was the first time that I recall standing and looking out at a massive audience and seeing white and black, young and old, people from the neighborhoods, people from the suburbs," Flynn said. "It was almost like a Celtics celebration, only this had a greater significance than even that."

Flynn said another reason Mandela came to Boston was because it was one of the first cities in the United States to divest of investments in companies doing business with the apartheid-supporting government of South Africa.

Mandela wrapped up his visit to Boston with a fundraiser for anti-apartheid efforts before he headed to Washington, D.C., for a visit with then-President George H.W. Bush.

This program aired on December 5, 2013.

Steve Brown Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.



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