Nelson Mandela made many memorable trips to Washington

December 5, 2013

Over the years, Nelson Mandela paid several visits to Washington, drawing admiring crowds, appearing on the most prominent stages in the city and the nation, and leaving listeners on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue certain that they had been in the presence of greatness.

He spoke before a joint session of Congress; he was the guest of honor at a White House state dinner. He spoke at Howard University and at the Brookings Institution and at the Washington Convention Center.

At an appearance at the University of Maryland, then-governor Parris Glendenning made him an honorary citizen of the state. He was also proclaimed an honorary citizen of the District.

There were cheers everywhere he went when he arrived in Washington on his June 1990 visit as a just-released political prisoner. They began at National Airport, where his plane landed.

At the Washington Convention Center on that visit, 19,000 people turned out to hear a man whom they recognized as a legend in their own times.

The Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan talks about the life and legacy of former South African president Nelson Mandela. (Thomas LeGro/The Washington Post)

As he took the podium on the night of June 27 at the downtown Washington Center, the crowd cheered for five minutes as he mounted the podium. Fists pumped in the air, people danced on the floor and in the upper levels, and many surged past guards to take pictures.

“I thought it was magnificent,” a Washington resident said in describing the event.

He stayed in the Madison Hotel on 15th Street NW during that visit, and as his motorcade drove through the city streets on the way to and from events, thousands of people gathered to cheer him.

Welcomed to the White House by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, he stood shoulder to shoulder with the president on the south lawn, and heard himself described as a man “who embodies the hopes of millions.”

The ceremony was modest, but as the two leaders spoke, White House workers, many of them African American, appeared in windows of the executive mansion, or at a rope line set up on the grounds, eager to memorialized the moment with their cameras.

Before his appearance at the convention center on June 27, Mandela enthralled a joint session of Congress.

Those in the packed House chamber interrupted him with applause 19 times, and several times the audience of lawmakers, cabinet officials, diplomats and other notables rose to deliver thunderous ovations.

Listen to an excerpt of Mandela’s famous 1964 speech “An ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

In October 1994, thousands gathered at Howard University to show their adoration for Mandela.

On a brilliant fall day, a crowd estimated at 15,000, many clutching South African flags and wearing African robes, applauding as they heard him conclude a 20-minute address with a paraphrase of a famous poem, uttering words that seemed to summarize the story of his life:

“I am captain of my soul, master of my fate.”

The speech at Howard came during a visit that included a dinner honoring him that was attended by 2,700 people at the Washington Sheraton Hotel.

Mandela’s triumph was “really a victory for the world,” said Joseph C. Kennedy, an official of the nonprofit Africare, which gave the dinner.

It was on that 1994 trip that President Clinton gave a state dinner in Mandela’s honor at the White House.

Earlier on that day, at a ceremony welcoming Mandela to the White House, the crowd on the lawn was said to be one of the largest ever.

Political figures, whose lives entailed a constant round of special occasions, appeared to recognize that this one was truly historic, and had grandchildren in tow.

Artillery pieces boomed out a 21-gun salute, and Mandela spoke of the struggle to end apartheid in his country. Recognizing the support of many Americans in the struggle, he said to those who welcomed him: “That victory is your victory.”

The visit included lunch at the State Department and a Capitol Hill ceremony, which included several of the African American members of Congress, and at which he seemed to elaborate on the shared nature of the triumph.

In an apparent reference to African Americans and their encouragement in the struggle, he said: “If our own people had not stood up when we were all alone, we would never have had the powerful friends we have today.”

Witnesses saw those who heard him try to fight back tears.

More than 10,000 people turned out in November 2001 to hear Mandela present the annual Sadat Lecture for Peace at the University of Maryland in College Park. Then-governor Parris Glendenning made him an honorary citizen of the state. Mandela had years before been proclaimed an honorary citizen of the District.

He was a vigorous 71 years old when he made his 1990 visit. In 2005, he visited again, to help in the launch of the Nelson Mandela Legacy Trust, a U.S.-based organization to raise money for three South African charities that carried his name.

Appearing during that visit at the Brookings Institution, he could barely walk under his own power. He was said to have called that visit probably the last he would make to this country.

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