Some clutched posters bearing Nelson Mandela’s image. Others held candles in red and green plastic cups. But they all walked across the Charles River under a dimming Sunday sky to honor the fallen South African leader’s symbolic long walk to freedom.
“We are the people that he has handed the baton over to,” said Maria Makhabane, a Harvard Business School student and one of more than 100 graduate students and faculty members who participated in the walk.
Makhabane was raised in Soweto. She and other South African students lamented being away from home, missing what they called the “Madiba magic” — an infectious sense of hope, joy, and community their leader instilled.
Instead of crowding into memorial services with their countrymen following the death last week of South Africa’s first black and democratically elected president, they were in Cambridge, studying for finals and paying homage to the man who embodied the battle against apartheid.
“South Africa probably would not have been as stable a democracy as it is” without Mandela, said Stuart Mac William, also a Harvard Business School student. “We probably would not have had an opportunity to live the lives that we have led.”
The walk across the Charles was one of several memorials to Mandela held in the Boston area Sunday. Mandela, 95, died Thursday in his home.
Sunday was designated for prayer and remembrance in South Africa, but the day of reflection extended far beyond the country’s borders.
At Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan, Bishop John M. Borders III, commemorated Mandela in a fiery sermon, comparing him to a modern-day Joseph, the father of Jesus. Borders praised the late South African president for his commitment to justice.
“What amazed me about [Mandela] was the fact that although he spent over 27 years in prison, he was never bitter,” the bishop said. “Racial oppression ended without anyone raising a sword.”
US Senator Elizabeth Warren, who attended the service with her husband, Bruce Mann, said that the best way to remember Mandela is to celebrate his life.
“He was a freedom fighter and a remarkable leader,” she said.
At St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge, the Rev. Ellis I. Washington encouraged his congregation to learn more about “this giant of a man.”
“He took the worst they had to offer and he did not retaliate evil for evil, but he sacrificed himself for the good of others,” Washington said.
Wilson Baker, an 8-year-old from Roxbury, read through a flier with milestones from Mandela’s life, which was inserted into each program: born in 1918, sentenced to life in prison in 1964, became a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 1993, and elected South Africa’s first black president in 1994.
“I liked how he stood up for his rights, just like Martin Luther King,” Baker said.
His father, Wilton Baker, said he has been telling his son about Mandela.
“It’s extremely relevant, not just because of his death but because of the arc of his life,” Baker said.
Baker, 45, said Mandela’s path reminded him of King’s: injustice, prison, some triumph, and a celebrated legacy. Though their paths diverged, particularly with Mandela’s use of violence, Baker said they teach an important lesson about forgiveness and overcoming adversity.
“You try to make sense of all the injustice in the world, whether racial or economic, and you just come to a place, which is the same place Mandela came to,” Baker said.