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Before becoming South Africa’s first black president, Mandela spent 27 years behind bars for opposing the ruling apartheid regime, which enforced racial segregation and excluded nonwhites from the political process. With the white minority government under increasing pressure to end its draconian practices, Mandela was finally freed on February 11, 1990. He wasted no time getting back to work, doing press interviews, giving a major speech in front of over 100,000 South Africans and taking his first international trip to nearby Zambia all by the end of the month. From there, Mandela headed to some other African nations and then on to Sweden, where he met with an old friend, Oliver Tambo, the exiled president of the African National Congress political party. That May, Mandela left on a second trip through Africa. And on June 4, he flew to Botswana on the first leg of another tour that would take him to more than a dozen countries, including the United States. Among other things, Mandela hoped to raise money for the African National Congress and to persuade foreign governments to keep strict economic sanctions in place against South Africa.

On June 20, Mandela took a flight from Canada to New York’s Kennedy International Airport, where he made some brief remarks before heading over to a predominantly black high school in Brooklyn. Later in the day, Mandela participated in a ticker-tape parade through lower Manhattan, a ceremony at City Hall in which he received a key to the city and a dinner at the mayor’s mansion. The police reportedly estimated that a staggering 750,000 people came out to view him. “We got to see history,” one of those people, who named her son after Mandela, recently told the New York Times. “It was an overwhelming feeling, knowing how he had stood fast with his beliefs, not agreeing to what wasn’t right.” The next day proved hardly less adulatory, with Mandela attending a church service, taking a motorcade ride through Harlem and appearing at a sold-out rally at Yankee Stadium, where Mayor David Dinkins presented him with a Yankees hat and jacket. “I am a Yankee,” Mandela responded to the delight of the crowd. He then had breakfast with business leaders the following morning at the World Trade Center prior to addressing the United Nations. While in New York, Mandela also squeezed in time for a couple of television news interviews and a fundraising dinner hosted by Hollywood stars Spike Lee and Robert De Niro.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela visit the grave of Martin Luther King Jr. on June 27, 1990.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela visit the grave of Martin Luther King Jr. on June 27, 1990.

Mandela’s next stop was Boston, the capital of Massachusetts, which a few years earlier had become the first state to divest its pension funds from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. At a predominantly black high school, Mandela expressed concern that so many students were dropping out. “This is a very disturbing situation, because the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow,” he said. Mandela also visited with two of his daughters who lived in the area, attended a luncheon with the Kennedy family and spoke at a rally along the Charles River, which included musical performances from Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon. He then headed down to Washington, D.C., where he convened with President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker–despite officially being on the terror watch list. In fact, Mandela would remain on the watch list until 2008, when President George W. Bush signed legislation formally lifting restrictions on Mandela and the ANC that had been in place since the mid-1980s. A day later, Mandela attended a Congressional Black Caucus breakfast and became only the third private citizen to address a joint session of Congress. “Our country, which continues to bleed and suffer pain, needs democracy,” Mandela said. “[…] We fight for and visualize a future in which all shall, without regard to race, color, creed or sex, have the right to vote.”

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The remainder of the trip included stops in Atlanta, where Mandela placed a wreath on Martin Luther King Jr.’s tomb, received an honorary degree from several historically black colleges and dropped by the city’s oldest predominantly black church; Miami, where he addressed a labor convention; Detroit, where he was greeted by civil rights icon Rosa Parks, visited a motor vehicle assembly plant and quoted Motown singer Marvin Gaye during an evening rally at Tiger Stadium; Los Angeles, where he spoke at City Hall, attended a fundraising dinner that reportedly raised over $1 million and headlined a star-studded rally at the Memorial Coliseum; and Oakland, where at yet another rally he praised longshoremen who had refused to unload South African goods. In Miami, five Cuban-American mayors blasted him for supporting communist Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and few hundred protestors demonstrated in the streets. Overall, though, enthusiastic crowds vastly outnumbered the scattered critics. Public officials were equally complimentary. The joint session of Congress reportedly gave him 15 standing ovations during his 33-minute speech, Vice President Dan Quayle called him a “symbol of freedom,” and the president of Lafayette College wrote that “no foreigner since Winston Churchill has so seized the imagination of the American people so boldly.”

On June 30, Mandela flew to Ireland, and then on to a few more countries before wrapping up his world tour in mid-July. He returned to New York twice in the next two years in order to address the United Nations, and in 1993 he traveled to multiple U.S. cities as part of a fundraising effort. Then, in October 1994, just a few months after being elected president of South Africa, he made his first official state visit to the United States. More U.S. trips came after his retirement, including a tour of Ground Zero following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and an appearance at the inaugural Tribeca Film Festival in 2002. Yet it is the first visit in 1990, when apartheid was on the verge of toppling, that seems to stand out most in Americans’ minds. “I can’t think of anything that moved me more than that experience,” Dinkins told the New York Times. “The thing that fascinated me most about this great man was his total absence of bitterness.”

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