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Mandela's changed times

Dec 12, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Once branded a terrorist, he grew to become a great world statesman

Americans younger than age 40 -- and that is most Americans -- might find it hard to believe that one of today's most admired and respected figures once was just the opposite. When Muhammad Ali appeared at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta to complete the parade of the Olympic torch into the stadium, there was almost a nationwide gasp of excitement, endorsement and emotional approval as the former boxing champion, struggling visibly with Parkinson's disease, gripped the torch bravely as the cheers of thousands at the site and millions around the country reverberated.

Thirty years earlier, however, Ali was one of America's most-hated men, reviled has a draft dodger, a troublemaker, a militant Black Muslim aligned with Malcolm X and other figures associated in mainstream America with violence, unrest, even insurrection.

Times can and do change.

Observing the global celebration of the life of South African leader Nelson Mandela this month strikes many people with a long memory as even more remarkable than the transformation of Muhammad Ali.

In the past 20 years, Mandela has grown to immense civic stature in the eyes, hearts and minds of most people around the world. There probably was no greater world statesman in the latter years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. At his memorial services this week, what may be the greatest assemblage of world leaders in history came to honor Mandela's legacy. But for much of his life, Nelson Mandela was branded a troublemaker, a communist, a criminal, even a terrorist. These were not simply views of small-time tyrants or regional rivals jealous of Mandela's notoriety and effectiveness. No, these were the official positions of the United States Of America along with most other "first world" nations.

There is historical evidence, in fact, that suggests it was the U.S. government that tipped off South Africa's apartheid government in the 1960s as to the specific whereabouts of Nelson Mandela, who was then in hiding, so that he could be arrested and jailed.

As recently as the Ronald Reagan administration, official U.S. policy was that Mandela was a terrorist who should not be released from prison -- or, if he were, then he ought to be forced into exile where he could be monitored and controlled.

Times can and do change.

Such metamorphoses can occur in reverse as well, but the better side of human nature and human accomplishment is revealed when they follow the pattern Nelson Mandela followed, namely that new ideas, even if they are unconventional or uncomfortable, can, in the hands and actions of the right person at the right time, play a transformative role in reshaping policy at the public level and thinking at the individual level.

It probably sounds strange to say it now, but it is very likely that in our midst today is a person widely disliked or disrespected, even hated, for his or her beliefs and the public disruption accompanying those beliefs, who, 10, 20, 35 or 50 years from now, will have emerged as an admired, trusted, even celebrated leader.

There is no telling who, but this progression is all but assured -- both for the individual and the American people.

Because times can and do change.

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