Sharing A 'Profound' Mandela Encounter With Morehouse Men

Today is Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday, and his legacy is being celebrated around the world. John Silvanus Wilson Junior, the president of Morehouse College, met Mandela in 1992. He tells Michel Martin about how that meeting changed his life, and fueled his commitment to educating African-American men. He also talks about the lessons he might share with his students in light of the George Zimmerman verdict.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we will tell you more about a recent report that more than a hundred women were sterilized in California prisons without their consent. We'll talk about this in just a few minutes. But first, on a much happier note, South Africans are celebrating the birthday of former President Nelson Mandela. He turns 95 today.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELEBRATION)

MARTIN: Around the world, people have been marking the day with 67 minutes of service to symbolize the elder statesman's years of public service. But as Mandela remains hospitalized, people have also been remembering his life and thinking about his legacy, and that's something on the mind of Morehouse College's new president. This year, the speech he gave to the graduating class of 2013 was inspired by his own encounter with Nelson Mandela. President John Silvanus Wilson Jr. is with us now to tell us more. Welcome back to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.

PRESIDENT JOHN SILVANUS WILSON JR.: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: You met him in 1992 after he was released from prison, but before he was elected president. Can you tell us about that meeting? How did that come about?

WILSON: I did. It was a great visit. I was on to - really, Africa in general. I hit several points of it. I was on a Kellogg Fellowship. A couple of the fellows and I made our way to South Africa, and we just went by the ANC office and they offered to give us a tour. And so after touring around for a few hours, we inquired - I inquired about whether Mr. Mandela would be able to meet with us. And there was a woman named Mary - she said, well, let me see if he's available.

And she called, and he said he was hungry and asked us to come by and bring some food, and so we went to his house. It was two to three hours of great conversation. It was a very special encounter. It was not a meeting, it was an encounter.

MARTIN: Let me stop you just for one second.

WILSON: Sure.

MARTIN: Did you honestly believe that when you asked that meeting - 'cause I know you're recounting it now from your position as a - you know, a former White House aide, you're the president of a major institution and - but I have the feeling that, as a fellow, you probably weren't as big and bold about that as it may have come across. I mean, was it along the lines of, do you think he could maybe meet with us? Did you really expect that he would?

WILSON: My expectations were low. I mean, you know, you go somewhere and ask to meet with Mr. Mandela, you're probably going to hear, oh, he's very busy and there's no way, but we had a great rapport. This person who was touring us was very impressed with us. I was at MIT at the time and doing some pretty special things, and the three of us who were there were HBCU graduates.

And so we mentioned that, and she was very impressed by that and thought he would be, too, and of course I mentioned Morehouse. So I kind of had a sense that he would be aware of these things and might receive it - the information warmly, if not make the time to visit.

MARTIN: The focus of your address to your students now was that you asked him how he stayed focused and strong in prison all those years, and what did he say?

WILSON: It was after a long conversation. I had to really get comfortable asking him that question. You just don't do that because it takes him to a place that could be potentially difficult for him. But I asked him, what kept you strong through 27 years in prison, four in solitary confinement? And he looked me in the eye and he said, I believe. And, you know, there was a pregnant pause, and I wanted to say, you believe what? And he interrupted me.

He just asserted, I believe. It kind of shook me. It was very, very profound. It was a very deep kind of communication. And that has affected me ever since, that there's a place that is deeper that we can go in our religion, in our spirituality, in our belief that rarely, rarely do we go there. Very few of us get there in life.

MARTIN: What were you hoping your students at Morehouse would draw from that encounter and your recounting of it and Nelson Mandela's words?

WILSON: This is like a Howard Thurman recognition. You know, he's the great mystic theologian from Morehouse who talked about centering down, to getting beyond churchianity and show time religion and performance worship, and going to a much, much deeper place. That's what I hope they get.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the president of Morehouse College, John Silvanus Wilson Jr. We're talking about an encounter that he had with Nelson Mandela when he was a young graduate student. We're speaking about this on the occasion of Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday. In the time we have left, you know that I want to ask you about a subject that's very much, I believe, on your mind and on the minds of many people around the country, and that is the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the death of Trayvon Martin.

The former president of Morehouse, he was on CNN on Monday talking about what he called the five wells - about how Morehouse men should comport themselves, and he said that our young people should be well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, well-dressed and well-balanced. And he also said it's very important that they comport themselves in a way that doesn't threaten. What are you talking to your young people about in the wake of this event that is so painful to so many people?

WILSON: It is very obvious to me and a lot of us that it really didn't matter how well-read Trayvon was or how he was dressed or any of those things. What mattered most here is the fact that an assumption was made that because he is a young black male, Zimmerman was certain that he was up to no good. That's what I was struck by most. And there was, at the center of this trial, the question, you know, can you be certain that because you're an African-American male, you're up to no good?

And the question in the trial is, is that fair and is that legal? And the jury said it's fair and legal to assume that. That, to me, is the worst thing about this because that's what Zimmerman did. Nonetheless, what we tell our young men at Morehouse and what I tell my son - I do have a teenage son, Michel, and this kind of shook me - we have an emphasis here on character. We want to respond to this with character, with intelligence, and we know that it's not over. There are options in the American legal system - and that's what's good about it - to still pursue justice, even on this side of that verdict by that jury. So in the nonviolent tradition - Martin Luther King and Morehouse College - we're going to hope to push back against this and put that question, that notion on trial again and come out with the right verdict this time.

MARTIN: Martin Luther King Jr. being an alumnus of Morehouse College. This trial - this whole episode, there are those who would argue that race was not a part of it, but clearly very many other people do believe that race is a part of it, particularly the image of young black men. And because you are in the business of serving and educating, I just wonder if you have some thoughts about that.

I mean, clearly there are people who believe that if Trayvon Martin had presented himself in a different way, that this would not have happened. If he had reacted in a different way, this would not have happened. Do you have thoughts about that?

WILSON: He was minding his business. Trayvon was minding his business, headed home. An assumption was made that he was trouble, all right? It is very clear because Zimmerman had apparently called the police some 46 times, and every single time he was calling about a young African-American male that he saw. It is very clear that race has something to do with this.

I think it's almost absurd to suggest that race had nothing to do with it. It is inconceivable, almost, that he would have called about a young white male, or even a young Hispanic male, walking with Skittles and iced tea, walking home. He would not have made the same assumption about being up to no good. So that assumption is pretty key here, and race had everything to do with that assumption.

MARTIN: You're obviously on summer break, as are most colleges and universities. When the students return, for the most part, what will you say?

WILSON: We're going to let them know that our response and their response must represent well the traditions and the vision of Morehouse College. And, you know, there's been a little bit - just a little bit - of violence and questionable behavior on a part of some who did not like this verdict.

There is a way to respond to this. We're going to talk about that, and we're going to talk about Morehouse men, those who are current students, Morehouse men in the making, and Morehouse graduates being a part of the reason why this country gets this thing right. Morehouse will be in that conversation, and you'll see that in the fall even more.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I just want to return once more to Nelson Mandela and your encounter with him. Is there any important lesson of his life that you feel would be helpful right now, or the encounter you had with him, or the conversation you had with him that you feel would be helpful right now, in this moment?

WILSON: In all that time in prison, and it seems for all of his life, he has had, in his mind, in his heart, and in his spirit, a vision for wholeness - for his own wholeness and for his country's wholeness, and maybe even beyond that. I got to tell you, Michel, at Morehouse College, I personally am guided by a vision for this institution's wholeness. And when you have that, it's a very, very powerful thing.

I believe we are going to be much stronger than we are now, and we are going to be in a position, institutionally, to make the men who come to Morehouse among the strongest men in the world and able to do great things in the world. I believe that, I have envisioned it, and we are going to make it so.

MARTIN: John Silvanus Wilson Jr. is the president of Morehouse College. That's an historically black institution in Atlanta which serves African-American men and men of other backgrounds. He was kind enough to join us from member station WCLK in Atlanta, Georgia. President Wilson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILSON: Thanks, Michel.

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