Mandela's Death Reverberates Across U.S.

American flags are flying at half-staff in honor of Nelson Mandela. The human rights icon died on Thursday following a lengthy illness. In Washington, D.C., there has been heavy traffic around the South African embassy as mourners converge on the area.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We're reporting today on the passing of Nelson Mandela. The Nobel laureate and first black president of South Africa died yesterday at 95. Many here in the United States felt a connection to Mandela, among them former President Bill Clinton. He spoke recently to CBS News about Mandela's legacy.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: He built a genuine multiracial democracy in South Africa, when he could have had a one-party state and shut everybody else out. When he could have had the politics of resentment, you chose the politics of inclusion. It's the only thing that works. It's the only thing that's working in American communities today.

MONTAGNE: For more on how the news of Mandela's death has been reverberating across America, we go now to NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: There's a mix of emotions for Howard University student Thelmae Mubaiwa.

THELMAE MUBAIWA: For me, honestly, I would say it's a feeling of hope.

WANG: Coupled with sadness for the loss of a man she grew up in Zimbabwe calling Madiba. A man she came to pay respects to at a special Nelson Mandela exhibit at Howard, a historically black school in Washington, D.C.

MUBAIWA: And there's still things that we struggle with today, whether it's in South Africa or Zimbabwe or here in America. And I just hope that we raise more leaders like him. You know, I aspire to be someone like him.

NELSON MANDELA: To the people of South Africa and the world...

WANG: Outside on a largely empty quad, college senior Darron Overby of Poughkeepsie, New York, cued up old speeches by Mandela on his Smartphone.

DARRON OVERBY: We wanted to actually have a candlelight vigil, but it's so windy outside that we weren't able to do that.

WANG: So Overby lit a flashlight instead with a few friends, including 23-year-old Torres Hodges of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

TORRES HODGES: You know, he was in prison longer than I've even been alive.

WANG: Still, Hodges says the 27 years Mandela spent as a political prisoner, and his decades as a visionary leader against inequality, deserve respect from all generations.

HODGES: And I think 95 years is a nice full life. So I don't think it's a sad day. It's sad when someone dies but he has a good legacy.

WANG: It's a legacy that touches upon not just South Africa, says Ahmad Ward, head of Education at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama.

AHMAD WARD: When you look at the effect of apartheid on the people there and the effect of segregation on the people here, and think about the fact that South Africa actually had Reconciliation and we still have not really had reconciliation happen here, it's an important thing to look at. Because I think we feel that we came a long way quickly. But they went the extra step, and part of that is due to Nelson Mandela's leadership.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM")

IDRIS ELBA: (As Nelson Mandela) There comes a time when there remains two choices: submit or fight.

WANG: Nelson Mandela's death comes shortly after his biopic starring actor Idris Elba was released in U.S. theaters. At a special screening in Brookline, Massachusetts, Professor Zine Magubane, of Boston College, spoke about Mandela's inspiring demeanor even as a prisoner in a racially segregated South Africa.

ZINE MAGUBANE: African prisoners were not allowed to wear long pants. They got brown sugar instead of white sugar. And they were supposed to walk in a certain type of formation. And from the beginning, he resisted even those small things - so really all of those things are part of his legacy.

WANG: For Walter Turner of Oakland, California, the Mandela he remembers was a global icon who drew tens of thousands of supporters in 1990, during his U.S. city tour after his release from prison. Turner helped organize the Mandela rally back then in the Oakland Coliseum.

WALTER TURNER: There was this electricity that for once, the people who really had put the energy into were going to have a chance to be there with Mandela.

MICHAELANN LOGAN: It was the most amazing. I wish I had the tape, but I have the poster.

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: Michaelann Logan, of Los Angeles, remembers hearing Mandela speak at the L.A. Coliseum. She says her seat was in the nosebleeds, but it didn't matter.

LOGAN: Here's a man that walked for freedom and he stood for so much for his country, it gave us a lot of pride.

WANG: Logan had tears in her eyes, recalling memories of Nelson Mandela. But she said they were tears of joy.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

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