In 1990, only about a decade after the bloody and divisive battles over desegregation in Boston, an international visitor came to the city bringing a message of peace. His name was Nelson Mandela.
Former Mayor Raymond L. Flynn recalled that visit on Thursday, after hearing of Mandela’s death at the age of 95—a visit he said was important to the city after the busing crisis that surged in the 1970s.
“It gave the world the opportunity to see Boston as it is and as it should be, and as we wanted it to be,” he said.
Many throughout Massachusetts, from those riding buses to the governor, Thursday remembered Mandela as a rare leader and an inspirational man of peace.
Shortly after his release from prison in 1990, Mandela visited Boston, the first city in the US to take a stand against apartheid by imposing sanctions on companies and banks that conducted business with the South African government. Flynn led the city during the sanctions and he lauded Mandela for the strength of his convictions.
“This man went to jail for over 20 years not for his own political injustices but because he wanted to make the world a better place—not with armies, not with nuclear weapons, not with position or wealth, but with integrity, honesty, and justice,” Flynn said.
Mandela chose Boston “as the first city as he wanted to visit to acknowledge the courage of Boston and its residents of standing up against apartheid, against the discriminatory apartheid government, against all odds,” Flynn said. “The people of Boston—white and black and everybody—the people stood tall and they gave Nelson Mandela the most outstanding welcome you could have seen.”
Inside A Nubian Notion, the landmark 50-year-old gift shop in Roxbury’s Dudley Square, Yvonne Abdal stood Thursday evening behind a counter where Mandela’s smiling face topped a stack of calendars featuring prominent Africans and African-Americans.
Abdal, daughter of store founder Sayid Malik A. Abdal-Khallaq, recalled taking her two children, both then very small, to see Mandela’s motorcade through Roxbury during his visit.
“It was very exciting,” the lifelong Roxbury resident said. “Everyone decorated their shops and had fliers and had flags. … It was one of the highlights of my life.”
At the Dudley Square bus terminal, Mattapan resident Thomas Graham, 73, said the death Thursday was “the end of one of the most moral men of the era.”
Graham said Mandela’s greatness was rooted in his willingness to forgive the ruling Afrikaner minority that established and maintained apartheid and to heal the deeply divided country.
“He was a giant of our time,” Graham said solemnly. “The sins that were committed against him and his people, to forgive that ... he’s next to God.”
Some of the state’s top officials also added their praise for the Nobel peace prize winner.
Governor Deval Patrick, the state’s first African-American governor, issued a statement calling Mandela “an ambassador of peace, reconciliation and brotherly love. Nelson Mandela was a remarkable and inspiring example of resilience, persistence, determination and grace, in his time and for all time,” Patrick said.
In a statement, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino recalled Mandela as “truly a global statesman” and said his strength and bravery moved the mayor.
But it was among the people on the streets of Boston that Mandela’s legacy was particularly felt Thursday.
For 29-year veteran Boston firefighter Michael Browder, Mandela was an example of the possibility that anyone can become a great leader.
“The most profound thing is the victory dance and the fist in the air when he won the presidency,” said Browder, 56, as he stood in a Grove Hall parking lot. “Everyone was doing the dance. ... It raised the hopes and aspirations of all children, black and white.”
Browder said Mandela’s leadership helped make it possible for Barack Obama to become the United States’ first African-American president.
Dr. Ravin Davidoff, chief medical officer at Boston Medical Center and a native of South Africa, said Mandela had accomplished an almost impossible task in uniting the country after more than four decades of apartheid.
“His legacy to me is that South Africa, with a huge majority of black people and a small number of white people, relatively, has been able to transition to a point where white people in South Africa live comfortably with people of all color,” Davidoff, who is white, said.
The Rev. Eugene Rivers III, co-founder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, said he was sitting in a Dorchester restaurant when he heard the news.
“I glanced up, the screen flashes Mandela, I squint, and it says he has died,” said Rivers. “As a black male who grew up fatherless, Mandela has been an epic-level warrior father figure. For a generation of black males who came to adulthood in the late ‘60s, he is this epic figure for people of all colors.”
Rivers, who met Mandela during his 1990 visit to Boston and again in Zimbabwe in 1998, remembered him not only as a leader and inspiration but as a man of great dignity who cut a distinctive figure.
“In a very quiet way, he had swag,” said Rivers. “He looked like a model … old man hipster swag.”