South African black leader Nelson Mandela comes to Washington today, where he will be embraced by a re-energized anti-apartheid movement and where he will outline the future of a cause that has brought together races, classes and ages in an often polarized city.

The District is ready to revel in the freedom of the world's most celebrated former political prisoner.

"His visit to Washington in many ways is a vindication of literally decades of work for some people," said Robert Edgar, a political science professor at Howard University who has been active in the movement. "It's a down payment on many people's dreams and aspirations for South Africa."

"He gives everyone in this city reason to celebrate," said Ray Davis, executive director of the Student Coalition Against Apartheid and Racism. "We're in desperate need to identify with someone who has a set of principles and is committed without question."

In a city where national and local dimensions are often separated by a sharply drawn line of color, Mandela, an African who will be accorded treatment reserved for the highest dignitaries other than heads of state, will skip frequently across the divide.

To help the deputy president of the African National Congress do his job during his three-day stay, a network of anti-apartheid activists -- some new to the struggle, some old to the struggle -- has kicked into high gear.

They are volunteering to answer telephones in Mandela welcoming committee offices, distribute leaflets, clean up debris and be stagehands in the panoply of events during Mandela's visit.

A money network has kicked in too. The South Africa project of the Lawyers Committe for Civil Rights Under Law has sold nearly 100 tickets at $1,000 each to a Tuesday reception to help pay for Mandela's visit here. The Greater Washington Council of Churches on its weekly radio program, airing tonight on WYCB 1340 AM, will ask its 14,000 listeners to donate at least $1 each to defray the cost of Mandela's trip.

Mandela's only scheduled public rally is sold out. The 19,000 tickets to his appearance at the Washington Convention Center Tuesday evening were snatched up five days after they went on sale.

In Washington, his third U.S. stop, Mandela will concentrate on hard-ball political negotiations, not inspiring the masses with the power of his patient, deliberate speech.

Mandela will meet President Bush at the White House to discuss negotiations between the ANC and the South African government and "how the United States can support these negotations," a White House spokesman said.

The African leader also will meet with Secretary of State James A. Baker and address a joint session of Congress. He will move around the city in a motorcade under the shield of diplomatic security and stay at the Madison Hotel, a preferred address of visiting heads of state.

"This is a visit to official Washington really," said Roger Wilkins, the national coordinator of Mandela's eight-city U.S. tour. "Mr. Mandela is a working statesman."

"He's not here to be celebrated and he's not here to be a cheerleader for black America. He's here to do his job. And his job is to fight for political, economic and social justice for all South Africans," Wilkins said.

No matter what Mandela's public posture for official Washington, the rejoicing over his freedom after 27 years in prison won't be restrained, especially among blacks here.

Yesterday, a D.C. Council member was scrambling to complete plans for an extra celebration of Mandela's visit in Freedom Plaza across from the District Building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW on Tuesday.

"People want a day of celebration even if he does not appear," said council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), the organizer of the event. "We just want to feel good about him being here."

Retired schoolteacher Lillian E. Pharr said she usually shuns big crowds, but the District woman will take her seat in the packed Convention Center Tuesday night to have a look at Mandela.

"Here is somebody who maybe can take the place of Martin Luther King," the retiree said. "I have the feeling it will give people a much needed hope that is lacking."

In Mandela, 71, many people see the embodiment of an idea, the refusal to be crushed by injustice. People across the city made his cause theirs.

Their major victory came in the mid-1980s with the "Free South Africa" protests that resulted in more than 3,000 arrests at the South African Embassy here in one year. The demonstrations helped move South Africa's system of enforced racial segregation closer to the forefront of American consciousness.

The United States imposed economic sanctions in 1986 against the white minority-ruled nation.

Randall Robinson, the executive director of TransAfrica, coordinated the protests that attracted celebrities who let themselves be arrested. But most of the people who submitted to arrest for their beliefs were unheralded area residents. They became the mainstays -- winter, spring, summer and fall -- of demonstrations outside the South African Embassy. They came from college campuses, from around kitchen tables, from church sanctuaries and corporate boardrooms.

Their contribution was in a tradition of concern about Southern Africa that began to build in momentum in 1972.

That May, on the inaugural celebration of African Liberation Day in Washington, window shades flipped up at the State Department as thousands of mostly black faces went by, recalled Howard University political scientist Ronald W. Walters. The protesters denounced American policy in Southern Africa from the back of a truck. The march included a stop at the South African Embassy and ended on the Mall.

"It was the first time there was a mass demonstration held around Southern Africa liberation," said marcher Kojo Nnamdi, now host of "Evening Exchange" on WHMM-TV (Channel 32).

Before that march, hometown Washington had not focused fully on South Africa. A decade before, the killings of South African blacks in Sharpeville had produced no huge outcry in the District.

But by June 1976, when hundreds of schoolchildren were killed for protesting the character and content of the education thrust on them in Soweto, a current surged through the anti-apartheid movement here. Protesters marched to the White House and the State Department, carrying wooden caskets.

A year later, the Congressional Black Caucus met in the fall and held a special seminar to create a lobbying group for Africa and the Caribbean. TransAfrica was born.

The now-defunct Center for Black Education in Northwest Washington, set up by students and professors from the old Federal City College, had become an institution around which several anti-apartheid activists did their work.

Cecelie Counts Blakey, associate coordinator of Mandela's U.S. visit, spent time there, along with several other black women with whom she would later work.

Sitting around kitchen tables in each other's homes, Blakey said they discussed ways to help the liberation struggles abroad. In 1978, they established the Southern Africa Support Project, a community-based organization that has raised more than $200,000 to buy medical and educational supplies for Southern Africa through spring radio-thons, gospel shows and dance marathons.

"It really has been a long process and it's been lonely at times," said Blakey, 34, who was born on the same day that Rosa Parks refused to take a back seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. "I can remember very well when most people didn't know who Nelson Mandela was and people didn't know how to spell apartheid or what it meant," she said.

When a representative of the African National Congress, Dumi Matabane, arrived in Washington in 1979, he worked for 10 years out of his home. Sympathizers gave him office supplies and equipment.

With the ANC presence, the loose network of anti-apartheid activists now had a touchstone to South Africa.

Others in the District soon joined the fight. In 1980, St. Augustine Catholic Church in Northwest Washington became one of the first churches to put up a "Free South Africa" sign.

The region's Lutheran churches sent crates of books to South Africa and monitored the treatment of dissidents. Churches and synagogues throughout the area sent members to the South African Embassy to demonstrate.

The first visit to the Washington area by ANC leader Oliver Tambo in 1981 drew a spirited crowd of 300 at Howard University's Blackburn Center and sparked fresh momentum.

Two years later, a coalition of local anti-apartheid groups successfully lobbied the D.C. Council for passage of a divestiture law sponsored by council member John Ray (D-At Large).

The law required the District government to withdraw its pension funds from banks doing business with South Africa.

"At that time, it was the most comprehensive divestiture law in the nation," said James L. Davis, an internal medicine specialist who is a member of the District's chapter of TransAfrica. "Campaigns in other states were modeled after the D.C. effort."

There have been other victories, large and small. As time has passed, some activists have moved on. But others have remained loyal, if only in their hearts.

Conwell Jones, a retired federal government worker, marched every single weekday outside the South African Embassy during the yearlong protests that began the day before Thanksgiving in 1984.

The 70-year-old got himself arrested and sang "We Shall Overcome." He is now preparing an exhibit with some of the 2,000 photographs he took outside the embassy.

"I had plenty of ways that I could have spent my time," Jones said. "But until the people get the message, that's the best way I know to get the message out."

Staff writers Retha Hill and Michele L. Norris contributed to this report.