Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., walks a picket line with others to protest apartheid in South Africa on Nov. 29, 1984, at the South African Embassy in Washington. (CHARLES TASNADI/Associated Press)

On the eve of Thanksgiving in 1984, a small group of Washington activists walked into the South African Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. They had grown weary of their frustration with the in­trac­table racial injustice in South Africa. They saw a system they did not like. They wanted to do something about it. It was the kind of bubbling disturbance that, if timed right, can launch a movement.

As Nelson Mandela lies ill in a Pretoria hospital on his 95th birthday, the ties between those Washington activists and the South African icon are being remembered Thursday on what has come to be known as Mandela Day. Events are planned throughout the District as part of a worldwide commemoration of Mandela’s legacy of racial reconciliation. An evening celebration at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church is set to bring attention to the unlikely success of the Free South Africa Movement, which was started by those activists in the District and focused attention in the United States on the plight of blacks in apartheid-era South Africa.

The arc of that District-based movement and its ties to Mandela’s legacy are on the minds of the old heads who started the Free South Africa protest. If young folks would look back, several said in interviews, they might find parables and lessons to guide this week’s protests of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman who fatally shot black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida.

“You think about these things very strategically. What can move the needle and what will likely not,” said Randall Robinson, the founder of TransAfrica, the oldest African American foreign policy organization in the United States. “You can protest. But if you can make the wind move, you have to put a sail up. To make the wind move where there is no sail is useless.”

Back in the mid-1980s at the South African Embassy, they made the wind move. They put up a sail.

Interactive Timeline: A timeline of the key events in the life of Nelson Mandela.
Reagan policy targeted

U.S. activists had tried before and failed to bring attention to the situation an ocean away, where 23 million black South Africans were ruled by 4.5 million whites, forced to carry passbooks, and killed, beaten or thrown in jail for bucking apartheid. Mandela, then a leader of the freedom movement, had been in prison for 20 years. He was not a household name in America.

With a little planning and the hope that they could get some attention on a slow news day, Robinson and other Washingtonians — including Mary Frances Berry, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Walter E. Fauntroy — began a protest at the embassy. They told the South African ambassador of their demands: freedom for Mandela and the release of political prisoners.

“Then we told him we weren’t leaving,” Berry recalled.

Berry , then a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, was arrested — along with Fauntroy (then the District’s delegate to Congress) and Robinson — for trespassing and taken to the city jail. Norton, now the District’s delegate, stayed behind to talk to reporters.

The aim, she explained to them, was to pressure the Reagan administration to end its engagement with the South African regime and to institute sanctions. (The Reagan policy of “constructive engagement” acknowledged the abhorrence of the apartheid policy but sought to take a piecemeal approach by improving relations between the countries and urging reforms over a longer period of time.)

The embassy arrests became international news, and the next day the Free South Africa Movement was born — at least in name.

“Obviously, we didn’t know whether the movement would take off,” Berry said. “We just decided it needed to be done.”

Protests outside the embassy continued almost daily for years.

Obama’s inspiration

In the movement, protesters were called “messengers,” and the message carried to the embassy was that “we wanted Nelson freed,” Berry said. Some days they beat drums. Other days celebrities flew in to be arrested — the tennis star Arthur Ashe, musician Stevie Wonder, and Mary Travers of the singing group Peter, Paul and Mary, among others.

It fueled the existing efforts by college students who were demanding that their boards of trustees sell the stock they had in companies doing business with the South African government. One, Barack Obama, a sophomore at Occidental College in 1981, considered a rally supporting demands that the trustees there divest stocks of companies doing business in South Africa his first foray into politics. He also contacted representatives of the African National Congress asking them to speak on campus, drafted letters to the faculty, printed up flyers and argued strategy.

With the help of allies in Congress, Robinson and others in the movement won the passage in 1986 of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which placed sanctions on South Africa. President Reagan vetoed it, saying that punitive sanctions were not the best course of action for opposing the repressive apartheid regime. Congress overrode the veto.

By the time the movement ended in 1990, nearly 4,000 arrests had been made at the embassy. More than 160 companies had stopped doing business with South Africa, costing the nation billions of dollars, Robinson said, while noting that it was activists in South Africa who risked their lives for their nation’s freedom.

That same year, Mandela was released from prison. He would go on to become the nation’s first democratically elected president.

“When we remember Mandela’s life, and we remind ourselves of his commitment and his bravery, it is easy to see the path to success,” Robinson said. “What requires great imagination, and great courage, is to see it from the other side.”

In the mid-1980s, it seemed systematic, intractable and unyielding.

Encouraging resistance

Maxine Waters was one of the 4,000 people arrested at the embassy. As a California lawmaker, she introduced legislation in that state to force public-employee pension funds to divest their holdings in companies doing business in South Africa. Now a U.S. representative from California, she is the lead organizer of an event on Capitol Hill planned for Thursday to bring together Republican and Democratic members of both chambers of Congress to laud Mandela with drums and dancers.

It will be a celebration perhaps unlike any Congress has seen before, Waters said with a laugh.

Today, she encourages demonstrations and rallies, saying protestors such as those who took to the streets after the Zimmerman verdict “should do it and never feel like we are alienating others.”

“Resistance is always important in a democracy,” she said.

The South African Embassy is celebrating both resistance and reconciliation. Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool is touting Mandela Day celebrations, which include a call for every person to perform 67 minutes of community service in honor of the 67 years Mandela gave to the freedom fight and public service.

“We want to really emphasize that there are qualities in the life of Nelson Mandela that the world desperately needs amid the strife today,” he said.

No matter what your opinion of the Zimmerman case, Rasool suggests pondering: “How does Nelson Mandela speak to us at this moment?”

In September, the embassy, which is undergoing renovations, plans to unveil a nine-foot bronze statue of Mandela. It depicts his first steps out of Victor Verster prison with one fist raised in the air.

It will be placed at the spot where the Free South Africa Movement protestors once stood.