Miami-Dade County

Flashback: Nelson Mandela's visit to Miami in 1990

The front page of The Miami Herald marking Nelson Mandela's visit to Miami on June 29, 1990. Photos by BILL FRAKES/Miami Herald Staff
The front page of The Miami Herald marking Nelson Mandela's visit to Miami on June 29, 1990. Photos by BILL FRAKES/Miami Herald Staff FILE

Editor's note: This article originally ran on the front page of The Miami Herald June 29, 1990 with the headline "Unofficially, Mandela Day: Grass-roots welcome counters official snub"

Elected officials might have turned their backs, but grass-roots Miami Thursday enveloped Nelson Mandela in a warm embrace.

The numbers and rousing welcome didn't rival New York's. The cast of characters was not a Who's Who of politics and entertainment -- as it was in Washington and Atlanta.

But Miami, ordinary Miami -- the teachers and technicians, homemakers and health-care workers -- streamed across the causeways and bridges wearing Mandela T-shirts and the red, black and green of the pan-African movement to welcome the deputy president of the African National Congress.

As Mandela emerged onto the podium before the 29th international convention of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, he waved and a gentle smile creased his face. His wife, Winnie, raised a victorious clenched fist.

"Sisters and brothers, " he greeted the 6,000 delegates and guests at the Miami Beach Convention Center. They erupted into cheers of "Mandela, yes. Apartheid, no."

"To be welcomed by those who hold the reins of power in this area . . . to be warmly received by residents of Miami, is a source of great inspiration to us," Mandela said.

Mandela asked for continued U.S. sanctions against the South African government, appealed for financial support for the ANC and praised AFSCME and other labor unions for their role in opposing apartheid.

"Your proud record of struggle has shown you have both the will and the determination to ensure that apartheid is ended now, " said Mandela, released Feb. 11 after 27 years in prison. "In jail we could hear loud and clear your voice calling for our release. We are here to tell you that the proud spirit of our people is far from being broken."

Mandela was repeatedly interrupted by enthusiastic union delegates. Even before his appearance here, AFSCME members, who have been involved in the anti-apartheid struggle for three decades, had raised $274,500 for the ANC.

"I needed to be here for this historical moment. I'm 28 years old, and I am seeing a person who was locked up when I was 1, " said union member Bernard Clark of Miami. "I didn't really care so much what he said. It was just the fact of being here, the fact that one day South Africa is going to be free."

Outside the convention center, a multiracial, but mostly black, crowd of 3,000 supporters rallied -- and were kept a safe distance from about 300 mostly Hispanic demonstrators. The two sides traded taunts across the 120-foot divide. Despite police officers' efforts, a shoving match broke out between members of the two groups.

Mandela's appearance capped 10 days of the kind of controversy familiar to Miamians. His refusal to repudiate Fidel Castro, Moammar Gadhafi and Yasser Arafat splintered this community. While some Cubans and Jews supported Mandela, a vocal group condemned him.

Auto mechanic Manuel Alayon, 70, showed up at the convention center draped in a Cuban flag and carrying a handmade sign: "Mr. Mandela, do you know how many people your friend Castro has killed just for asking the right to speak as you do here?"

To Miami's blacks, the furor was a slap in the face, especially when the city commission last week withdrew a welcoming proclamation.

"Miami looks bad, bad around the world, " said Roy Philips, a Miami-Dade Community College vice president, as he sat in the stands waiting for Mandela to arrive. "We need to come together, come to consensus. We all love freedom, no matter where we're from."

After Mandela's departure in the early afternoon for Detroit, Arthur Teitelbaum of the Anti-Defamation League called for community harmony. "That requires that we lower our voices, listen hard to each other and struggle to find common ground."

Several elected officials attended Mandela's speech: Metro- Dade Commissioners Barbara Carey and Charles Dusseau, state Sen. Carrie Meek and Opa-locka Mayor Robert Ingram.

Miami Vice Mayor Miller Dawkins, who declared earlier that he would not forgo the Miami City Commission meeting to attend the event, arrived bearing a gift for Mandela: a silver plate engraved with the seal of the city of Miami. He left before Mandela spoke.

Miami was the mid-point of Mandela's eight-city visit to America and part of his 13-nation tour.

Although the public could not enter the convention hall, large crowds danced and sang in the wilting heat for almost five hours, hoping for a glimpse of Mandela and his wife as their motorcade sped by.

Visibly fatigued after landing in Miami about midnight Wednesday, Mandela slept in Thursday and reached the convention center about 11:15 -- 2 1/2 hours hours late.

"Mandela, Mandela" erupted from the jubilant throng as his motorcade pulled up.

Across town, about 2,500 people jammed Gwen Cherry Park in Liberty City to pay tribute to the anti-apartheid leader and hear his speech broadcast over speakers.

Their hopes that he might make an appearance were dashed. After his speech at the convention center, Mandela considered attending the rally, but his U.S. State Department security team discouraged the stop.

But four Miamians did meet him.

Following the speech, local anti-apartheid activists were introduced. Lawyer H.T. Smith never expected more than a handshake from his hero.

But Mandela embraced the president of the Coalition for a Free South Africa and whispered, "Thank you for your commitment to the struggle, " Smith remembered.

Smith said that as he returned to his seat, Winnie Mandela "gave me a bear hug and said, 'Thank you.' "

Winnie Mandela, who has spent almost three decades keeping her husband's struggle alive, then captured the hearts of the entire hall. Amandla, she cried in the Xhosa language when the crowd demanded she address them. Amandla -- power -- 6,000 voices responded.

After leaving Miami, Mandela flew to Detroit, where he was met at the airport by Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and about 90 dignitaries. As he weaved his way down a reception line, he stopped in instant recognition before Rosa Parks, the 77-year-old matriarch of the American civil rights movement.

"Oh, Rosa Parks!" he exclaimed, as Winnie Mandela wrapped the small woman in a big hug.

Later Thursday, a mostly black work force of thousands greeted him at a Ford assembly plant in Dearborn. And Thursday night, at a sold-out rally at Tiger Stadium, Mandela spoke to an audience that included Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Detroit Pistons basketball star Isiah Thomas. He closed by saying: "I love you, I love you."

This report was supplemented by Herald wire services.

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