In the pantheon of 20th-century moral leaders, there’s Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela (b. 1918). Mandela, the son of a village chieftain, made the extraordinary journey from prisoner to president, and in doing so, became an example for millions. Imprisoned for 27 years by the apartheid government of South Africa, Mandela taught his country—and the world—how to fight for a cause with integrity and above all, how to forgive. Upon his release in 1990, Mandela called for reconciliation, and as South Africa’s first black president, he moved his country from white minority rule to multiracial democracy. By the time he stepped down after five years as president, South Africa had made the transition to democracy without a violent revolution. In a jaded age, Mandela’s life stands as a much-needed reminder that one person can, in fact, make a difference.
Lou Reed (b. 1942) was a punk before there were punks, a musician who peered into the dark and desperate shadows cast by modern life and never flinched. In his groundbreaking work with the Velvet Underground and his influential solo career, Reed was at heart a subversive, managing to slip sly mentions of Valium and “giving head” into “Walk on the Wild Side,” a hit song heard by millions of impressionable teens. Reed’s artistic palette was too dark to bring him widespread commercial success, but he attained something that’s proven to be more enduring—the respect of discerning fans and musicians. Perhaps the best summation of Reed’s outsized influence on popular music came from musician Brian Eno, who observed that the first Velvet Underground album sold only about 30,000 copies in its first years. But, said Eno, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”