Mandela at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, to receive the Liberty Medal, July 4, 1993

Nelson Mandela was a hero of mine ever since I first heard of him, in the 1980s when I was a teenager growing into political activism. Ending apartheid was just a dream. Sure, we suggested concrete steps, such as divestment, but I for one didn’t think I’d see it end in my lifetime. I thought Mandela would die in prison, his main achievement martyrdom. We’d sing “Free Nelson Mandela” without any real hope that it could happen.

And then it did, and the African National Congress actually took power, and prisoner Mandela was president of South Africa. Of South Africa! And he was a wise, progressive leader who brought tremendous healing to a country that had seemed certain to die of self-inflicted wounds.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mandela is usually mentioned in the context of racial justice, but like him, he was also passionately concerned about economic justice. Having defeated apartheid, he turned to an even larger foe: poverty. One would think that almost 20 years of revolutionary activism, 27 years in prison, and five years as the head of state would entitle him to an honorable retirement, but Mandela never stopped taking on new challenges. In 2005, he went to London before a G8 trade meeting and reminded the leaders and the gathered crowd that the G8 had pledged several years earlier to cut world poverty in half. “Do not look the other way,” he said to them; “Do not hesitate. Recognise that the world is hungry for action, not words. Act with courage and vision.” (Full text)

The statement that poverty is not natural, but a human creation, is so simple and so radical. I hope one day we will look back on his words about poverty and perceive their truth as easily as we now perceive that apartheid was wrong.

Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.

And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.

While poverty persists, there is no true freedom. . . .

Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.

Not everyone is born to a life as large as Nelson Mandela’s, but those last three sentences are going up beside my desk to remind me not to live small when it comes to making justice.