Commentary

27 years a hero

The best way to honor Nelson Mandela is to carry on his fight

Originally Published: December 6, 2013
By Jason Whitlock | ESPN.com

Nelson Mandela AP Photo/Pool-Theana Calitz-BiltNelson Mandela's life is a testament to the honor and humanity required to constantly battle injustice.

Let's honor Nelson Mandela by looking inward, asking ourselves what we can do to make our world better. Let's honor Nelson Mandela by recognizing oppression is constant and our inconsistent reaction to it is its strongest ally.

Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday, is the reason I hated the movie "12 Years A Slave." I prefer heroes to victims. Solomon Northrup was a victim. You could argue from watching the critically acclaimed movie based on his memoir that Northrup was a victim of his own indifference to slavery.

Born a free man and living in New York, the movie portrayed Northrup as quite content with his life. When an astonished black slave entered a shop to gawk at Northrup and his wife, Northrup was every bit as indifferent to the slave as the white shop owner was. Northrup strutted about New York without a care in the world, tickled with his honorary, second-class white man status. He was so naive to his vulnerability that he was easy prey for his white abductors.

Unbeknownst to Northrup and quite possibly his modern-day movie-makers, Northrup was a prime example of the dangers of leaving injustice unchallenged. When ignored, injustice spreads, oftentimes inflicting its wrath on the people most foolishly indifferent to its danger.

Twelve years of slavery turned Northrup into a passionate abolitionist. Rather than gratuitously focusing on slavery's brutality -- a fact that Alex Haley's "Roots" made clear 35 years ago – "12 Years A Slave" should've dwelled on the before-and-after-slavery Solomon Northrups.

That would've been a great movie about the making of a socially conscious black man. Instead, we were fed a movie designed to make white people introspective and socially conscious. We are more worried about their salvation than our own.

Let's not blow today. Nelson Mandela's 95 years were a lesson in how we are supposed to live. Mandela's movie could be titled "27 Years A Hero."

Mandela did not need to be denied freedom to realize he must join the fight against injustice. He jeopardized his freedom by fighting injustice, by demanding equality for black South Africans and an end to apartheid. Throughout his 27 years of imprisonment for "treason," the South African government offered Mandela deals for his release that did not include liberation for his black countrymen. Mandela turned those deals down. He sacrificed his relationship with his wife and children for the betterment of mankind.

When he was set free and ascended to the presidency, he forgave his oppressors and treated them with the respect and compassion he wanted for black South Africans.

Mandela lived an unrelenting life of dignity, courage and mercy. All of us -- regardless of race -- have a moral duty to follow in his footsteps.


In the immediate aftermath of Mandela's passing, I thought about the Jameis Winston controversy and its lack of dignity as the case resolved Thursday. The state's attorney and Winston's defense lawyer both struck the wrong tone. They lacked dignity and empathy. They were as tone deaf as the prosecutors and defense lawyers in the resolution of the Trayvon Martin case.

[+] EnlargeWillie Meggs
AP Photo/Steve CannonFlorida state attorney Willie Meggs needed to display more compassion and dignity in his news conference Thursday.

I am comfortable in my belief that Winston did not commit rape. I am not comfortable with the notion that Winston did nothing wrong. This is a teachable moment for young people and high-profile athletes. Sexual intimacy is not a group activity. It's not a Facebook moment to be shared with teammates and friends. You need witnesses for a wedding. If you need witnesses for sex and you're not on a movie set, it's an indication you're doing something wrong, an indication that one or both parties is in an altered state of mind.

Again, I do not believe Winston raped the young woman. I also do not believe Winston exercised sound judgment. The lighthearted news conference by the state's attorney was inappropriate. The defiant news conference by Winston's attorney was undignified.

The accuser and her attorney might have been misguided. But, on the day Winston was seemingly exonerated and cleared to accept the Heisman Trophy, there was room for the tiniest touch of empathy for the woman. A serious tone and an avoidance of vilification were all that was necessary.

A dash of Mandela. That's what we need in this world. Do you have the courage to give it?

• Columnist for Fox Sports from 2010-2013
• Columnist at the Kansas City Star for 16 years
• ESPN.com Page 2 columnist from 2002 to 2006

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