Nelson Mandela’s First Visit to Riverside: Celebrating and Renewing Our Call

Once again our country is rocked by protests that demand the abolition of the persistent and systemic racism embedded in our institutions. As we pass Juneteenth, which marks the date on June 19, 1865, when the Emancipation Proclamation was read to enslaved African-Americans in Texas, the last Confederate state to have the proclamation announced; and as we approach July 4th we consider the yet unfulfilled promises of the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…”

Amidst this charged climate, we mark the 30th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s first visit to The Riverside Church on June 21, 1990:


On August 5, 1962, Nelson Mandela – a member of the African National Congress (ANC) party and a socialist who advocated militant direct action against apartheid – was arrested by the South African Police, following a tip from the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency. Mandela was an influential political activist by this time, having become the president of the ANC’s Youth League in 1950 and co-founding its armed wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (Xhosa for “Spear of the Nation”), in 1961, following the March 21, 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, when police murdered 69, and injured 180 others, during a peaceful protest.

Mandela was charged with high treason under the 1950 Suppression of Communism Act, along with nearly a dozen others, a diverse group of South African activists including those with Jewish, English, Indian Muslim, Xhosa, Pedi and mixed-race backgrounds. On April 20, 1964, as the trial began, Mandela delivered what is now known as his I Am Prepared to Die speech from the defendant’s dock while hundreds protested outside, bringing international attention to his case. Mandela opened the speech by insisting his activism was not influenced by outside agitators, a charge frequently leveled against black freedom movements throughout the world to this day: “I have done whatever I did, both as an individual and as a leader of my people, because of my experience in South Africa and my own proudly felt African background, and not because of what any outsider might have said.”

On June 12, 1964, Mandela was found guilty on all charges and, against the prosecution’s call for capital punishment, sentenced to life in prison. Mandela would spend 27 years in prison. During that time, international attention to Mandela’s case continued to grow, and by 1980 the United Nations Security Council had condemned South African apartheid and demanded Mandela’s release, but calls for UN sanctions on South Africa were vetoed by the administrations of the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher. Later, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 was passed by the United States House and Senate, but was again vetoed by Reagan. Reagan’s veto was harshly criticized, and in the following week, it was overridden by another House and Senate vote, one of very few foreign policy veto overrides in the 20th century.

The majority of Mandela’s time in prison was spent on Robben Island, a former leper colony off the coast of Cape Town. From the late 17th century, Robben Island had been used by colonial governments to detain political prisoners, starting with Autshumato, a chief among the Khoisan people who resided on the cape, who, in 1658, attempted to reclaim cattle stolen by the Dutch. Autshumato and his accomplices are believed to be first prisoners on Robben Island, perhaps the first known resisters to African colonialism, and the first, and purportedly only, to successfully escape the island. In the 1740s, Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the Sheikh of Madura, was among many princes and kings exiled from Indonesia by the Dutch, first to the cape and then to Robben Island. Moturu is credited with being perhaps the first imam in Cape Town and died in prison on Robben Island in 1754. Today, the Moturu Kramat on Robben Island is a sacred pilgrimage site built in his honor. In 1766, men known as “Massavana” and “Koesaaij,” the only surviving leaders of a mutiny aboard the Dutch East India Company slave ship the Meermin, were imprisoned on Robben Island until their deaths. In 1819, Makhanda, a Xhosa warrior and spiritual leader, who had led a revolt after the British had seized cattle from the Xhosa, was taken to Robben Island. He drowned while attempting to escape a few months later. In 1873, Langalibalele, a king among the Bantu people, was taken to Robben Island when his people resisted having their firearms registered by British colonial overseers. He was eventually permitted to return to the mainland, but his titles were never restored, and he remained under house arrest until his death in 1889.

It is perhaps fitting that a prison which had held the kings and leaders of the colonized, would, in the end, produce the leader who dismantled South Africa’s apartheid regime.

During Mandela’s time on Robben Island many of its prisoners were members of political parties which had been banned by the apartheid regime, such as the ANC; religious activists, such as Njongonkulu Ndungane, who would go on to become the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town; Pan-Africanists, such as Vusumzi Make, who had been Maya Angelou’s partner; and various trade unionists and anti-apartheid activists from both South Africa and Namibia. Prisoners like Mandela were required to spend much of their day breaking rocks in a lime quarry on the island, and Mandela’s eyesight was permanently damaged by the sunlight reflecting off the white rocks. Mandela began a correspondence course with the University of London to get an undergraduate law degree, but his correspondence was frequently heavily censored by the prison, and he was routinely given solitary confinement over smuggled news clippings. Mandela organized with fellow prisoners for better conditions and to create lecture courses for each other. Mandela also studied Islam and taught himself Afrikaans, the common language among the prison guards. Mandela’s constant organizing among the prisoners and self-education won him respect and it was out of this that he was able to begin negotiations with the prison officials, the courts, and the legal political parties, such as the white-led Progressive Party, on behalf of the prisoners to improve conditions on the island.

In 1982, Mandela and other ANC leaders were moved to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland, perhaps to curtail their organizing amongst Robben Island prisoners. But the new location had somewhat better living conditions, and offered him greater freedom to correspond with comrades outside prison and thus greater political influence in an increasingly violent and impoverished South Africa. As fears of outright civil war rose, Mandela’s presence back on the mainland was widely felt and international calls to release him grew. In 1988, after a bout of tuberculosis brought on by poor prison conditions, Mandela was moved to the lower-security Victor Verster Prison, where talks began with the white supremacist National Party government of President F. W. de Klerk (a conservative who until 2020 insisted apartheid was not a crime against humanity) to negotiate his release and the unbanning of all political parties. On February 11, 1990, Mandela was released from prison and delivered remarks to thousands from the balcony of Cape Town City Hall. On March 2nd, Mandela was made Deputy President of the recently unbanned ANC party, and in May, the ANC met with the De Klerk government to commence negotiations toward ending apartheid.

In late June of 1990, between negotiations with the South African government, Mandela made a visit to the United States on a campaign to raise money for the ANC and to encourage the international community to continue economic sanctions until the agreement to end apartheid had been reached. Mandela was greeted by an estimated 750,000 people at a ticker tape parade through the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan, and given The Key to the City of New York by its first black mayor, David Dinkins (whose call for a police oversight Civilian Complaint Review Board would cause a massive police riot two years later). The next day, on June 21st, before speeches at Yankee Stadium, the United Nations, and a townhall at City College with Ted Koppel, Mandela attended an interfaith “Service of Thanksgiving for Nelson Mandela” at The Riverside Church.

Mandela processed into the packed Nave, with Rev. James A. Forbes, Riverside’s first black Senior Minister, at the lead, and Rev. Jesse Jackson at his side, continuous cheers and applause nearly drowned out the music of Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji which accompanied him. Mandela was introduced by “the dean of black preachers in America,” Rev. Garner C. Taylor, who called Mandela “the true leader of South Africa, certified by his own courage and integrity, ratified by the blood of countless Black Africans slaughtered in Freedom’s cause, and confirmed by people of decency everywhere.”

Mandela took the pulpit, again greeted by minutes of rapturous applause. Mandela opened his statement by offering a greeting from the ANC and the “struggling people of South Africa.” He went on to say: “During the long years when we were in prison, you did not forget us. Neither did you abandon our struggling people. You enlisted the most cherished beliefs of your religious calling: you took up the mission of promoting justice and peace and helped the people’s fight against the evil of apartheid. We salute you.”

As we remember the 30th anniversary of Mandela’s first visit to The Riverside Church, where he delivered perhaps his first official address in the United States, we reflect on Riverside’s role in the world, in light of a renewed fight to demolish the social, economic and political structures that uphold racism. In the case of the anti-apartheid fight, Nelson Mandela himself credited Riverside, and its international, interracial, and interdenominational values, as a key part of the coalition that triumphed over the South African government.

How can Riverside again take up the mission of promoting justice and peace and help the people’s fight against the evil of racism? As Riverside’s Interim Senior Minister Rev. Michael Livingston said, “The systemic becomes personal.  Racism kills.  And we must root it out of our systems which infect individuals with consequences as deadly as the COVID-19.” Our Mission & Social Justice Commission continues this work, from joining the Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington, launching a new Anti-Racism Task Force, and partnering with groups like Color of Change to hold officials in Minneapolis to account for the racism and violence there which led to the murder of George Floyd.

“I am mindful that this church has, on so many occasions, been the venue of anti-apartheid defense, and hosted many a South African speaker who has brought into this city the cry of our people. Above all, I am grateful for the gracious reception this church has afforded my longstanding friend and comrade in struggle, the President of the African National Congress, Oliver Tambo. When our cause was not a popular cause in the corridors of power in Western nations, it was religious communities, college and university campuses, and anti-apartheid organizations in the United States and elsewhere that stood firm on economic sanctions. I am here today to say: thank you.”

“We enter now the final phase of our struggle. The structures of apartheid are crumbling. The old order is crumbling. But the age of freedom has not yet dawned. We have not come to this point because of some kind of miraculous change of heart in the South African government, no. The willingness of Mr. de Klerk and his government to talk – which is what we demanded before we went to jail 27 years ago – has come about because of pressure from the youth, workers, religious, peasant and professional communities, supported by the international community. Our broad-based national movement for liberation has rendered large sections of South Africa virtually ungovernable.”

-Nelson Mandela at The Riverside Church, June 21, 1990