The reaction to Nelson Mandela’s passing is pouring in. The comments, as one might expect, all touch on common themes: his devotion to equality, his nobility and endurance in suffering and his ability to transform a nation and set an example for the entire world. It is an interesting coincidence that his death comes in the same year as the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which itself was part of a transformational year in the civil rights movement (Medgar Evers’s assassination, Gov. George Wallace tried to bar the door to African Americans at the University of Alabama, the Birmingham church bombing).
It is a reminder that real courage — not the version easily tossed around by politicians who are actually playing to popular opinion — is rare in world affairs. And moreover, it is a wake-up call to those in positions of power that one’s historic legacy and personal greatness is intertwined with defense of human rights. One hopes that the president, who gave an eloquent tribute to Mandela (“a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice”) would apply those lessons in places like Iran, Syria, Russia and China and be an unwavering force for justice, liberty and tolerance. He will, like all world leaders, be judged by the sort of causes he supported and the suffering he ignored.