When Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in South Africa in 1990, he went on a United States “Thank You” Tour that included Oakland, California.
You have to understand that, at that time I was just about three years out of grad school at UC Berkeley. And when I was there, protests against the apartheid regime in South Africa were common. And violent. One such protest shut down the campus, and brought out the police and the National Guard.
It’s almost unbelievable to consider now that there were Americans who actually supported apartheid, and I spent a fair degree of time at the University of Texas at Arlington trying to explain to some white classmates, in a very calm way, why apartheid was just plain wrong.
Well, in Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area, everyone knew why apartheid was wrong – especially then Congressman Ronald Dellums, who would later become Mayor of Oakland.
Dellums, along with other Oakland, Berkeley political leaders, pushed for local governments to divest from South Africa, and was well on his way toward achieving the objective of a national law that would do the same.
The intense pressure on South Africa led to then-President F.W. De Klerk to get Mandela out of jail.
So, when Mandela took his American tour, he came to Oakland, California, and to specifically thank the people of Oakland for their work, support, and battle on his behalf.
This is one of those moments where Oakland shines brightest. Oakland’s gift is in its collective ability to rise up in defense of those who have been oppressed in some way – often before the rest of America catches on. It’s a reason, one of many reasons, why Oakland’s one of the greatest cities in the World.