Like Gandhi, Napoleon, Churchill, Lincoln and King, transcendent leaders come along maybe just a handful per century. After King met his demise on a Memphis balcony in 1968, there probably has been no other figure across the globe who has been as iconic, as visionary, as revered as Nelson Mandela.
He just may be the most exceptional individual any of us will ever witness in our lifetimes.
For those who came of age in the last 30 years, it may be hard to comprehend how much of a reviled stain on the human soul South African apartheid represented throughout much of the 20th century. It was difficult to comprehend how the world could sit by and watch its daily affront to human dignity, well into the 1980s. And it was impossible to imagine that it could end in any other way than epic bloodshed.
That is, until Mandela stepped out of that jail in 1990 and astonished the world by navigating his country through a peaceful transfer of power from the apartheid regime to the black majority. It will stand as perhaps the defining human rights act of the 20th century, in many ways maybe even more remarkable than the Civil Rights Movement actualized by Dr. King—while King helped vanquish Jim Crow and brought a measure of equality, at least in the eyes of the law, to the lives of African Americans, Mandela all at once toppled a murderous, evil regime without firing a bullet and almost overnight changed the life trajectory of 40 million black South Africans.
When I stood in front of a Brooklyn school as a reporter for New York Newsday in 1990 and watched him sail by in a massive parade held in his honor, my heart stayed full for weeks. Even then, I knew I had come into contact with something special.
Madiba’s exclusive place in the human orbit was canonized by leaders around the world yesterday, as the planet seemingly stopped to recognize the passing of an idealized version of us, a leader for the ages.
Celebrities, luminaries and heads of state from across the global family tripped over each other in reaching for the most poetic and soaring language they could find to describe Mandela and his impact on all of our lives.
It is a testament to how complete was his adoration that virtually every head of state felt moved to issue a statement, to craft words memorializing Mandela. Is there any other person among us whose passing would garner such an ovation?
President Obama: “A man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice. We’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with. He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages… His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to.
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Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.