Remembering Mandela and Civil Rights in America

Nelson Mandela's legacy is a reminder of how much times have changed.

Last night, my wife and I attended the Washington opening of a terrific play, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," a new adaptation of the famous movie.

It was an appropriate theme, reflecting on the death yesterday of Nelson Mandela, the most revered global statesman of the past half century.

The movie and play, set in 1965, center around a politically liberal, pro-civil rights white family whose daughter comes home with a surprise: the black man she's in love with. The family members' struggles with their consciences echo the realities of the dark racism in American society at the time.

Let's remember that in 1965, Mandela was serving his second year of imprisonment in apartheid South Africa. He wouldn't get out of jail until a quarter-century later, and then would go on to become South Africa's first black president, making his nation a beacon of inspiration and racial reconciliation.

That context is a reminder of how much times have changed. In one scene in the play, the possibility of a black U.S. president is discussed; the idea is dismissed; a black secretary of state is seen as more likely. Three-and-a-half decades later, Colin Powell became the top U.S. diplomat; eight years after that, Barack Obama was elected president.

The play also is a reminder of how history rewards those who champion expanding, not limiting, civil rights. It was the Kennedy brothers -- Robert and Ted -- who in the 1960s spoke out against the despicable white rule in South Africa.

In the 1980s, the end of that dreadful system was hastened by economic sanctions.

A stain on the legacy of Ronald Reagan is that he fought those sanctions, siding with segregationists such as Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

History is kind to the Republicans who stood against South Africa then: Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, Kansas Senators Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum and Representative Jack Kemp of New York.

The movie came out the same year the Supreme Court ruled a ban on interracial marriage was unconstitutional. In 1965, the year the movie takes place, Congress enacted the historic Voting Rights Act affecting millions of disenfranchised minorities. Imagine if any politician today tried to overturn that decision on interracial marriage. Yet legislators in places such as Texas and North Carolina are trying to turn back the clock on voting rights.

Last night, after the play at the Arena Stage, we saw Lynda Robb, whose father, Lyndon Johnson, did more for civil rights than any president since Abraham Lincoln. She recalled how deeply affected he was by the film: "Daddy loved to invite people to the White House to see the movie and then tap them and say, 'How'd you like that.'" Many would squirm, she said.

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