North Carolina’s Mandela-like elder statesmen

Dec. 10, 2013 @ 06:51 PM

Nelson Mandela’s death last week at the age of 95 prompted a worldwide celebration of his life. The attention to him these past few days is testimony to the power of his wise and unselfish leadership.

Mandela’s example was transformative. Not just for South Africa, but for our state and for the entire world. Not just for the time of his country’s changes, but for our time and for all time.

Our gratitude for Mandela’s model of inclusion, forgiveness and reconciliation should remind us that North Carolina has been blessed with its own Mandela-like unselfish elder statesmen whose actions and examples have transformed our state for the better and challenged the rest of us to work harder for inclusion and respect and to make our part of the world a little better for everyone.

John Hope Franklin, who died in 2009 at 94, like Mandela, suffered the indignities that were part of growing up as a black man in the segregated South and working as a young academic in North Carolina. When he came back here in 1980 to teach history at Duke, he had earned a reputation as a gifted historian whose research and writings demonstrated a culture of racism and oppression in our country that rivaled the South Africa of Mandela’s early years.

Rather than simply writing off his fellow southerners as irredeemable racists, he made us his friends and seemed confident that he could make many of us his allies. While he insisted on accountability and redress for the injustices of his country’s racist past, he, like Mandela, projected a gentle and dignified manner, ready to engage and make common cause with his former opponents.

The death of Charlotte civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers last August gave us an opportunity to reflect upon his importance as a public figure. Dying at 76, much younger than Mandela, Chambers had nevertheless gained the status of elder statesman. While Mandela was in prison in South Africa from 1962 until 1990, Chambers was on the front lines of the North Carolina civil rights movement. As a tireless and creative advocate, he made his mark in our courts, including notably the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court’s school busing decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. Subject to death threats and real bombing and arson attacks on his home, office and automobile, Chambers always treated his courtroom opponents with dignity. Over time, he earned the respect, and often the friendship, of his opponents.

Like Mandela’s death, William Friday’s passing last year at 92 left a vacancy in his role as the state’s wise and energetic public elder, trusted prophet and pastor. Like Mandela, he earned his place through bruising struggles in the public arena, not always winning but always looking for a way to turn apparent defeats into important and lasting victories, and, even in the bitterest battles, reaching out and turning his opponents into friends and allies in common endeavors.

Also on my list is the 95-year old Billy Graham, whose regular visits to the hospital for serious health issues remind us that he will not be with us forever. Some people have not forgiven Graham for his entrance into the divisive political battle last year over the amendment to the state constitution prohibiting same sex marriage. But his lifetime example of tolerance, racial fairness and inclusiveness, openness to the points of view of others, while preaching the Christian gospel, has led many of us to become better people. When his time to leave us comes, I will celebrate his good life that, like Mandela’s, inspired us to find ways to see the good in the hearts of people of other faiths and other opinions.

D.G. Martin hosts "North Carolina Bookwatch," which generally airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. The Sunday broadcasts on Dec. 14 and 21 will be preempted by special programming; Dec. 19’s guest is Jim Dodson, author of “American Triumvirate: Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, and the Modern Age of Golf.”

The program will also air December 18 at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on UNC-MX, a digital cable system channel (Time Warner #172 or #4.4).