June 1990, just four months following his release from prison after 27 years: Thousands poured into Roxbury’s Madison Park High School to see Nelson Mandela.
For those on hand, the wait turned into an event itself. A late flight and a previous engagement delayed Mandela for hours. Temperatures soared inside the school, yet the crowd soldiered through- young and old joining together in song and dance.
Their euphoria reached another level when Mandela finally arrived.
He only spoke for less than 10 minutes, but the theme of Mandela’s message was clear: the importance of education.
"If there is any appeal that I could make," he said to the crowd, "It is that the young people of Boston and indeed the young people of the United States must take it upon themselves to ensure that they receive the highest education possible, so that they can represent us well in future as future leaders."
Boston was part of Mandela’s then eight-city tour of the United States. The day long visit culminated in a six-hour concert at Boston’s Esplanade, which brought out as many as 250,000 people.
The diverse crowd was a far cry from the racial division that had plagued Boston in previous decades. Cameras captured a sea of black and white fists raised in the air – many of them also waiving the flag of Mandela’s African National Congress.
Mandela linked his country’s fight to end apartheid with another fight that began here in Boston.
"We are even more touched that it was here in Boston that your own independence movement had its birth. We lower our banners in memory of Crispus Attucks, the first victim to fall in your revolutionary war, just a few hundred yards away from where we are meeting today," he said.
Mandela went on to thank the city he called a second home for its anti-apartheid efforts. Boston had long supported South Africa’s fight for a free and democratic society. In 1984, it passed what was then described as the most far-reaching local law to divest public funds from South Africa.
Your love and enthusiasm, as well as your pioneering role in taking positive measures against apartheid, betray the deep seeding of kinship you hold to us and our people and the just cause they are so vigorously fighting for. When one day, our history is re-written, the pioneering and leading role of Massachusetts will stand out like a shining diamond. It was you who supported us when very few knew of our existence, our trial and tribulations.
Boston also became home to many South African exiles, who welcomed Mandela’s visit with open arms.
"I can’t wait to see him in person, in flesh. I’ve heard about the guy, I’ve read about him, I’ve wrote about him, and finally it’s almost as though myth and reality are fusing together," said Irene Moutlana as she waited to see him speak.
"I think that what Mandela represents is the ability for us to play a role in South Africa again, which we were never really allowed to play," Adam Klein said.
Mandela would indeed get to live long enough to see his country free. And lead it as its first president after apartheid was abolished.
Yet, 23 years after his visit, as the world mourns his passing, at least one of Mandela’s pleas to Boston remains a long walk.
"We are deeply concerned, both in our country and here, of the very large number of dropouts by schoolchildren. This is a very disturbing situation, because the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow."