The death last week of former South African President Nelson Mandela sparked a worldwide outpouring of sorrow, respect and remembrance of a man many considered one of history’s great heroes — a liberator of his countrymen, exemplar of forgiveness of his oppressors and champion of human dignity.
There were vigils honoring Mandela around the globe, and local ceremonies as well. In Hempstead, hundreds of students gathered Friday afternoon in the Hempstead High School auditorium, where they heard local officials describe Mandela as an inspiration to fight for justice and serve one’s community.
“Mandela show us how to love each other and not always it has to be an eye for an eye,” said Douglas Mayers, president of the NAACP’s Freeport/Roosevelt chapter and the Long Island Caribbean American Association, who is from the West Indies. “… And if anything we learned from Mandela was … how to reach out to your enemy and bring them to you, and I think that’s a lot that we have to follow.”
Former Hempstead Mayor James Garner, who said he met Mandela a number of times in New York and South Africa, and was a delegate to the United Nation’s World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, unfurled onstage a South African flag that he said Mandela gave him. The vigil also included the Hempstead High Chorale singing the South African hymn “Siyahamba,” the Rev. Joe Brown, of Hempstead’s Faith Baptist Church Cathedral, singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” and the Hempstead High Concert Band performing “We Shall Overcome.”
After the vigil, Garner said he found it “incredible” to talk to Mandela, and described him as “very nice in person.” He recalled visiting Mandela’s Robben Island prison cell and the island prison’s limestone quarry, and seeing for himself how inhospitable both were.
In recent days, other local officials have told the Herald of their admiration for Mandela. Kevan Abrahams, the Democratic minority leader of the Nassau County Legislature, called him an “icon to not just the people of South Africa but to this world.”