Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the South African Embassy would host prayer vigils through Thursday. They will be held through Tuesday.
Washington, a city that held Nelson Mandela in deep admiration in life, on Friday officially began mourning his death and honoring his transcendent messages of hope and reconciliation.
South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool and D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray announced a week of mourning for Mandela, echoing efforts underway in South Africa and around the globe to celebrate the legacy of the political prisoner turned president who died Thursday at age 95.
The South African Embassy will host candlelight prayer vigils at 7 p.m. through Tuesday at the base of a statue of Mandela at 3051 Massachusetts Ave. NW. A public condolence book will be placed in the foyer of the city government’s John A. Wilson Building at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW on Monday and Tuesday and will be delivered afterward to the people of South Africa, Gray said.
The week of tributes will culminate Wednesday at 11 a.m. with a memorial service at Washington National Cathedral, the sanctuary where the country has symbolically gathered after national tragedies and where U.S. presidents have been eulogized.
“It is with a mixture of sadness and gratitude that we welcome the opportunity,” said the Rev. Gina Gilland Campbell, the cathedral’s canon precentor. “We hope to lay to rest with grace, with dignity, with integrity and a good measure of compassion, this citizen of the world.”
Gray said a days-long tribute was appropriate and needed for many in the nation’s capital to mourn Mandela’s passing. Mandela visited Washington numerous times after his release from prison in 1990.
“At this stage, it’s just hard to get past the man. He was just an unbelievably phenomenal person who you have to put in the category of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi,” Gray said.
“You have had such a large African American population in this city that empathized tremendously with what he was trying to do,” Gray said. “We saw him as someone who was persecuted and spent so many years in jail; we absolutely reveled in the fact that he was able to . . . lead that nation to freedom and a form of democracy that it never experienced.”
Nicole Lee, president of TransAfrica, an anti-apartheid organization created in 1977 by the Congressional Black Caucus, said she hopes the events planned in Washington will be replicated in cities nationwide.
“To the people of South Africa, our hearts are with you today,” Lee said. “We want to encourage people all over the country to join in celebrating Mr. Mandela’s life.
“He represents the power of change through organizing, campaigning and solidarity. He represents the power of forgiveness and reconciliation — these are all lessons our country, the United States, needs right now, and it is a unique opportunity to be engaged.”
Mandela’s close relationship with Washington began the year he was released after 27 years in prison, when he was met with cheering crowds at what is now Reagan National Airport.
On that trip in 1990, Mandela mesmerized a crowd estimated at 19,000 at the old Washington Convention Center who had turned out to hear a man they recognized as a living legend.
Over the ensuing years, Mandela went on to speak before a joint session of Congress, he was the guest of honor at a White House state dinner, he received the Congressional Gold Medal, and he spoke at Howard University and at the Brookings Institution.
A crowd estimated at 15,000, many clutching South African flags, attended the 1994 speech at Howard. President Bill Clinton gave a state dinner in Mandela’s honor that year.
About 10,000 people turned out in November 2001 to hear Mandela present the annual Sadat Lecture for Peace at the University of Maryland at College Park.
In 2005, on his last visit to Washington, he helped launch the Nelson Mandela Legacy Trust, a U.S.-based organization to raise money for three South African charities bearing his name.
Rasool, the South African ambassador, said books of condolences will be available to sign daily next week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the embassy. He said those interested in attending Mandela’s national memorial service should check the embassy’s Web site in coming days.
Rasool pointed to the statute of Mandela erected outside the embassy, with the blessing of D.C. lawmakers, as the beginning of a “show of unity” between South Africa and the United States. It will provide an ideal backdrop, he said, for the week of prayer vigils and a place for “your city to grieve . . . for all of us to remember.”
Martin Weil contributed to this report.