Celebrating freedom and peace

Published 8:08 pm Saturday, December 28, 2013

I’ve been thinking about Nelson Mandela a lot since his death. Sorrow swept my soul with the realization that his peaceful presence is no longer with us.

After 27 years in prison, during the height of South African Apartheid, Mandela managed to emerge the most powerful man in his nation minus hatred and resentment. His journey from convict to icon of freedom liberated an entire country.

President Barack Obama put it this way: ‘It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well.”

Email newsletter signup

I experienced the peace of his presence back in May of 1990. Mandela came to Detroit as part of a tour of America. At the time, I was a reporter for Post/Newsweek’s NBC affiliate WDIV. My assignment was to do live reporting and analysis as he went from event to event.

With live television, there’s always a bevy of technical problems to overcome. Downtown Detroit’s Renaissance Center is a commanding structure. But it can be a technical nightmare when it comes to receiving radio signals inside its steel structure. I could talk to the anchors live, but hearing their questions was an adventure. I had to wave the IFB receiver around behind me hoping to get a good signal while talking live to Mort Crim, our main anchor, and working through interviews with Coleman Young, Andrew Young and Rosa Parks.

Then along came Nelson Mandela — regal, calm and kind. He almost looked startled to see me. Suddenly the technical problems no longer mattered. The chaos around him blended into the background. We were one on one. He appeared as curious about me as I was about him.

“Where are you from, young man?” I told him Suffolk, Va., a town not far from where our nation started.

For 10 to 15 minutes this fatherly man who’d gone to prison a revolutionary and came out a statesman talked gently and thoughtfully with me and to roughly thousands of viewers all over Metro Detroit.

His humanity was overwhelming. A peace resided in his spirit that brought peace to my spirit, a calm that became my calm and a power that became my power. For a short time, we occupied space together, talked politics, economic development and reconciliation.

When the moment was over, Mandela moved gracefully on to the next grateful soul. Gradually the noise and excitement returned, and so did the chaos associated with the presence of greatness. Before he got there, I was hurried and anxious. After he left, the technical problems seemed so much less important.

As a journalistic group, reporters are obsessed with objectivity. It is our second nature to seek balance and fairness. Yet in order to report accurately and factually, there are times when we must allow some stories to affect us.

Mandela transformed the moment, and that was a fact that had to be reported. His presence confirmed promises of biblical proportions. It showed us peace is possible even after oppression; that forgiveness after confession — like justice and mercy — are necessary for peace to prosper; that all parties involved are still brothers and sisters after the debris of injustice is cleared away.

I sincerely doubt he remembered me among the throngs of reporters he talked to. But I’ll never forget the effect of him.

Nobody stays on this earth forever. But I am sadder today, because Nelson Mandela’s presence and peace aren’t here anymore. I hope both will live on in all of us.

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor, He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at dennisredwards@verizon.net.