Nelson Mandela: His impact on American activism, politics and pop culture

CNN News Wire | 12/6/2013, 10:42 a.m.
Nelson Mandela

(CNN) -- Word of Nelson Mandela’s death spread quickly across the United States, bringing with it a mix of reverence and grief for a man who was born in South Africa but in the end belonged to the world.

President Barack Obama ordered American flags to be lowered immediately to half-staff until Monday in tribute to Mandela, a rare honor for a foreign leader.

Memorials to the former South African president popped up from Los Angeles to Chicago, where flowers and candles were laid in front of murals bearing his likeness. In Washington, people gathered in front of the South Africa’s embassy.

For many Americans, the death of Mandela was akin to losing one of their own.

He loomed large in the actions of activists and politicians; he inspired music and movies.

Here’s a look at Mandela’s impact on the United States:


It began with a financial boycott, of sorts.

Students on campuses across the country in the late 1970s called for their universities and colleges to divest from investments in South Africa.

That led to sit-ins and protest marches that by the mid-1980s drew thousands.

“We had marches day after day, thousands of people got arrested in Washington, D.C.,” civil rights attorney Charles Ogletree said. “They were all released and ultimately not charged with any offense. Because it was a national issue -- black, white, male, female, people on the left and right, everybody was involved in it.”

In 1986, Rep. Ron Dellums, D-California, sponsored a bill that called for a full trade embargo against South Africa as well as divestment by American companies. The bill, which passed the House, was vetoed by then-President Ronald Reagan. Congress then overrode the veto.

Today, this type of activism -- financial boycotts -- have become a protest staple. For example, fast food workers called this week for a boycott of their respective restaurants to protest low wages.


It began in 1985 with musician Steven Van Zandt’s “Sun City,” a song that protested the South African policy of apartheid.

The music brought together such musical powerhouses as Bruce Springsteen, Run DMC, Bonnie Raitt, Miles Davis, George Clinton, Jackson Browne and dozens more to record the single and video.

That was followed in 1986 with the release of Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” which featured South African musicians -- including Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Simon on Thursday praised Mandela as one of the world’s greatest teachers.

“He conceived a model for mortal enemies to overcome their hatred and find a way through compassion to rebuild a nation based on truth, justice and the power of forgiveness,” the singer said in a statement to CNN. “His passing should reignite a worldwide effort for peace.”

On Thursday, the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem -- that hosted so many of these artists -- paid tribute to Mandela. Its marquee said, simply: “He changed our world.”

Hollywood was a long-time supporter of Mandela’s fight against apartheid, releasing a number of movies inspired by the civil rights leader’s plight.