ATLANTA, JUNE 27 -- It was hot, hot, hot, maybe 90 degrees, on this New South city's street of dreams, "Sweet" Auburn Avenue, and bongo drums kept up an impatient beat for some 2,000 fans like Rosa King, 37, medical student and mother of three as she braved rain showers and broiling sun, waiting for Nelson Mandela.
Flanked by her children, she hoped to glimpse the African revolutionary laying a wreath on the white marble tomb of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who once stirred a nation from his command post here.
Only Mandela was two hours late. Winnie, his wife, had asked him to delay the ceremony until her luncheon was over. Grumbles rippled through the sweating crowd. "TELL US WHERE HE IS!" shouted a man perched in a tree overlooking this byway for once-thriving black business gone a bit seedy with pool halls, condemned row houses and beauty parlors bristling with ugly burglar bars.
"I'm a little aggravated with people for complaining," said Rosa King, decked out in a colorful African hat across the street from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. "If Mandela can wait in prison 27 years and not compromise his dreams, I can wait a few hours to see him. I'd camp out two days if I had to."
Then came the shout: "He's coming!"
"One dollah, one dollah, one dollah for Mandela!" shouted a postcard vendor, as Coretta Scott King appeared on the steps of the King Center and a U.S. Army band struck up a brassy rendition of "You're a Grand Old Flag," suddenly drowned out by the vroom vroooooooom of 14 police motorcycles.
"DROP THE UMBRELLAS!" shouted gawkers, and umbrellas came down. Two vans of security agents roared up, followed by limos and a Grady Memorial Hospital medical unit.
Mandela had arrived, fist raised skyward, an African hero in a gray suit and burgundy tie, who has yet to disavow the leverage of violence in his struggle against apartheid, come to honor the memory of another hero, one who left behind a legacy of turning the other cheek in the face of racial brutality.
It was downright New South Gothic, a brave African revolutionary honoring another black peacemaker in the capital of the New South, and celebrated in return by King's own followers, family, chief lieutenants and fans who weren't dismayed one bit by the apparent disparity in his philosophy of guns and struggle.
"He's never said, 'Pick up machine guns and kill white Afrikaners,' " said Bruce Bell, 24, a college student straining to snap a shot with his pocket camera. "But what do you do if someone comes to your house with automatic weapons? Let them blow your brains out? Let them kill your children and just stand back?"
"If Martin Luther King had been here today, I believe he would have supported violence to fight in South Africa," allowed Nathaniel Johnson, 29, a medical resident at Emory University Hospital whose father, a Brooklyn policeman, was murdered when he was a child. Here, there were at least laws allowing freedoms on paper for blacks, he said, while in South Africa, blacks have no such laws enfranchising them.
"America's own history is rooted in violence," said Johnson. "In the American Revolution, we stood up to an oppressive English king for our freedoms. Now everyone wants black people to turn our cheek. I just think when peaceful means don't work, and you try over and over to protect your family, your land, if it takes violence you've got to do it."
By now, Mandela had finished shaking hands with local dignitaries and moved on to the gleaming white crypt. He set a stand of yellow mums alongside King's grave, then joined hands to sing "We Shall Overcome," the American civil rights anthem now sung in Soweto.
It was a predominantly black crowd come before through the years to glimpse history here at the center built in King's memory after he was gunned down in Memphis, but for some like Terry Watson, 33, this was different. So different that he'd risked his job and an angry wife at home in Charleston, S.C., by phoning in sick and hitting the road alone in his beige 1982 Honda Civic.
"She wanted to come, but she couldn't get off work," he said. "So I got up at 5 a.m. and left her a note. I know she'll be mad, but I'll just have to deal with it."
Resplendent in a "From South Africa to South Carolina Brother 2 Brother" T-shirt, he wore shorts, sneakers and a cap sporting a "Mandela Freedom" button. "It's the chance of a lifetime. He's one of the soldiers of the world, and I'm willing to do anything just to get a peek."
Shades drawn, burglar bars in place, Kathryn "Lady" Byrd locked the door to Lady Byrd's Beauty Salon. She'd rescheduled clients so that she could watch Mandela, and, at noon, as he arrived at the airport here, she flipped on the TV to hear him. "Nonviolence is a good policy when the situation permits," he was saying.
Byrd knew all about such situational ethics, she said. After 22 years on Auburn Avenue, she'd just installed burglar bars after a break-in. On the counter, beneath posters touting "Wave Nouveau," was her can of Mace. "Every day I pray to God I won't have to use a gun to protect myself, but I learned a long time ago, you can't roll over and let someone hurt you," she said, shuddering at the thought of all the "addicts, thieves and child molesters they've let loose from jail" who are flocking to Sweet Auburn. "I've been in business 22 years, and I don't plan on closing up and going home. ... I don't like violence, but sometimes you've just got to deal with a situation." She nodded at Mandela on the TV, "Who are we to say they shouldn't use violence? I have my Mace."
But others were more hopeful, taking inspiration for a better tomorrow in a man who had emerged from jail after 27 years still together, still dedicated to his cause. "I hope my daughter remembers that her days are good days because he had bad days," said Jerome Smith, 50, a community activist who brought some 40 black children from New Orleans to see Mandela.
He hoisted one of his seven children, a 5-year-old girl, atop his shoulder. "I don't ever want her to forget the blood of struggle," he said. "A lot of people are dying in South Africa for a positive mission. Here we've got too many kids dying without any mission at all, from drugs. This can be a renewal, like an answered prayer." A neighborhood junkie had even gleaned its importance, he said. "He came up to me and said, 'I wish I could go but I'm strung out, but I'm proud you all are going.' "
It was so hot that James Hargett, 52, a retired New York transit supervisor who moved to Atlanta to help his wife finish medical school, went hunting for drinks. He came back with Cokes for his wife and children.
"I thought we were supposed to be boycotting Coca-Cola," she said.
"I forgot," he said, passing them out to his grateful brood, then surreptitiously sipping a cold Schlitz. "I just grabbed what they had," he added sheepishly, the heat taking its toll on ideology.
Nearby, a social protester exhorted the crowd to boycott Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up and assorted products from firms doing business in South Africa. "They're leeches," he shouted. "You divorce 'em and they dry up and die." The crowd shrugged, hunting coveted cold drinks.
Indeed, ironies abounded, including the black steward who works an exclusive, all-white club frequented by Atlanta's powerful business community. He was buying Mandela T-shirts for his wife and youngest son, age 4. "To me he stands for freedom and justice," said Richard Jones, 55, quick to defend his bosses at the Piedmont Driving Club. "That's their home away from home. It has the word 'private' on it. If I don't want to invite you into my home, I don't have to.
"I like my job, it's a good job. I'm able to buy these T-shirts and take vacations. You couldn't find a better place to work."
Suddenly, he was moving again. "NELSON, NELSON, NELSON!" they shouted, as he raised a clenched fist, and moved onward down Sweet Auburn, eliciting cheers as he climbed back into his limousine. Next door was historic Ebenezer Baptist Church -- once co-pastored by Martin Luther King Jr. and his father, "Daddy" King -- a red brick shrine for millions of tourists who flock to soak up the city's civil rights history. Mandela's caravan roared past Lady Byrd's Beauty Salon, Happy Holly Daze Pool Room, the boarded-up Lacy's bar, an African art boutique and the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by the man Mandela came to honor. "Mandela ties the movements," effused the Rev. Joseph Lowery, SCLC president, flush with the "spiritual experience" of meeting Mandela. "He puts flesh and blood on the global aspect of the movement, living proof you can overcome."
Four blocks down the street, the motocade stopped at Big Bethel AME Church, where civil rights leaders paid further homage, and their larger-than-life symbol held forth.
Outside, police barricades and a small army of officers halted the pilgrims. There was no more room inside; the 1,200 seats were snapped up. His words were piped by speakers into the street, but it was impossible to hear, even when people stopped talking outside. Mandela was drowned out by the sounds of the city -- buses, crying babies. Among those waiting for hours for a glimpse was Patricia Smith, an elementary school program assistant, who nudged her 6-year-old triplet sons forward, about 20 feet from the church steps. "I just want them to lay their eyes on Mandela," she said. "They're very talented kids, we're trying to find an agent.
"Oh, there's the mayor, boys," she said, ogling Maynard Jackson, then noting Harry Belafonte; Dick Gregory; Martin Luther King III, a local county commissioner; Andrew Young, candidate for governor.
"Andeeeee!" shouted the crowd. Suddenly, Mandela was rushed from the church out a side door, and the caravan was off. Most supporters never even saw him leave.
"I can't believe they did this," fumed Kathleen Desire, a physician who took the day off and never saw the man. "They have no consideration for the people here."
"That's still enough for me," said the triplets' mother. "I heard his voice. I felt his spirit, I saw his face. That will do. Let's go, boys."