Mandela has repeatedly said he is not a saint and he is right. The pre - imprisonment Mandela was a showboating lawyer, a storied womanizer, demagogue, a narrow Africanist who opposed full membership for whites in the ANC, and a sometimes violent agitator who used to break up communist meetings and other interracial political gatherings by physically throwing the speakers off the stage.By the mid 50s he had come around to supporting full membership for Asians and eventually became a fervent advocate for the full membership of all South Africans regardless of race. He also was one of the chief compliance enforcers of the ANC boycotts in the late 40s and early 50s, and was quite open about the utility of intimidation and ostracism in the process.
Beginning in the 50s the ANC mounted a campaign of scorn and denounciation of black people and black groups who were collaborators with, or seen as accommodationist to the apartheid government. Intimidation which sometimes erupted into violence was not uncommon. In the mid 80s into the early 90s the intimidation reached unprecedented levels of violence where people who ignored boycotts were forced to flee their communities and in some cases were killed.Although the ANC claimed, with some credibility, that it did not advocate this kind of violence, it too often conveniently turned a blind eye to the doings of some of its more demagogic and radical officials and members.This of course is all balanced by the remarkable achievements of both the ANC which became a truly non-racial movement by the late 50s, and was instrumental in crafting a revolution that avoided the bloodshed of a full out civil war, and Mandela who emerged from a prison as an advocate of a negotiated settlement and a fervent evangelist of forgiveness and accommodation.
I had never heard that about Mandella.
With that in mind I want to illustrate two points about people I admire. The first being Malcolm X, for reasons I set out here. To basically recap, Malcolm had been wrong. He was a criminal. He was a loser. He had been ashamed of how he looked, implicitly ashamed of black women, and perhaps even ashamed of the dismemberment of his family. He then rescued himself from that shame and remade himself anew. For African-Americans, who long shared that racial shame, this notion of rescuing yourself from moral wrong has a deep appeal. It's the idea of personal growth which somewhere inside we all seek.
I feel the same way about Abraham Lincoln. Here's a guy who routinely told darkie jokes, whose first meaningful contact with black people involved a robbery attempt, who had never really engaged in substantive conversation with a black person until he met Frederick Douglass. And yet within a year of his death he's speaking straight prophecy:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged.The prayers of both could not be answered--that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him?Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
I get chills reading that. There is the sight of an American president seeing a kind of divine judgement for slavery, a quasi-payback, for slavery. But being me, it's the subtle digs that I love, It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged.
After this speech--which I, like others, consider the greatest inauguration speech of all time--Lincoln took the unprecedented step of greeting Frederick Douglass at the inaugural reception. No black person had ever been received as a guest there, and he did with great fondness.
The point isn't that Lincoln was reborn as a racial egalitarian, anymore than the point is that Malcolm X was now an avowed integrationist. It's growth--the dream of being something more than how we were born. Add on Lincoln being born dirt poor and self-educated and becoming a great writer. Add on him losing his own young son during the War. Add on his wife have significant mental issues. It all has a deep appeal.
What I did not get from the array of characters paraded out during Black History Month was that sense of growth and struggle. I am not repelled by Lincoln's racism--I am attracted by it. Surely I have had, and continue to have, my own struggles.