They lined the streets from Roxbury to the Esplanade that beautiful Saturday morning in 1990, straining to grab a glimpse of the world leader who was so revered, but, until then, always from a distance. When Nelson Mandela came to Boston, he wasn’t yet president of anything. He was the world’s most celebrated ex-prisoner, on a six-week tour to exhort the world not to let up on the pressure to end the evil of apartheid.
Boston was a natural destination for Mandela, and he came at an important time. The area had been an early and energetic hub of the divestment movement and was a great place to spread the gospel — and raise money for the African National Congress.
But the Boston Mandela arrived in was also, well, a tinderbox. The fallout from the Charles Stuart murder case — in which a white man killed his wife, then provoked massive public outrage by claiming that a black man had done it — was still raging. Public spaces of all kinds remained deeply segregated. Integration of public housing in South Boston and Charlestown remained explosive. There weren’t many multicultural celebrations of anything in Boston in 1990. And yet Mandela’s arrival was a huge moment, and not just for black people, or activists, or progressives.
“One of the two or three greatest moments I’ve ever witnessed,” said Raymond L. Flynn, the former mayor, on Sunday. “I remember the enthusiasm and pride of people of all races. It was something Boston needed at the time. The way Boston turned out for Nelson Mandela showed it was a city coming together.”
Even seasoned journalists felt the weight of the moment. Greg Moore was the editor of the Globe’s metro desk then, the first black to hold the job. He slipped out of the newsroom to see Mandela speak at Madison Park High School — he wanted a glimpse, too.
“We all recognized what a big moment it was — for Mandela, for the country, and for the city,” said Moore, now the longtime editor of the Denver Post. “The guy gets out of prison, comes to this country, and one of the first places he comes is to the birthplace of democracy. We knew we had to rise to that occasion.”
Roxbury’s glimpse of Mandela was fleeting. He spoke briefly, said he hoped to return some day. No matter; the crowd was rapturous. Even after his motorcade faded into the distance, much of the crowd lingered along the route, basking in a moment never to be repeated.
The big party was on the Esplanade. Before a crowd of 250,000, Mandela declared his admiration for the city, and the echoes of its struggles in his own. “It was here that the Boston Tea Party served notice that the citizens of this country would not live under domination by the British,” he said. “And that was the establishment of a fundamental principle which has inspired democracies, democrats, freedom fighters, revolutionaries all over the world.”
Toward the end of the festivities, as the bands continued to play, Mandela danced a little. It was a remarkable moment: After everything he had been through, he could still dance. He could still embody grace. Boston took notice. “Seeing this world figure, who united races and came through all these difficulties and had this big smile on his face, [saying] we could come out of it, too,” Moore said “People wanted to believe.”
Mandela’s visit to Boston conjured a future that is now closer, but still just beyond our grasp. It seemed to say that embracing one another, in spite of everything, is not a burden, but a birthright. Seizing the sweet promise of that moment is the challenge this moral genius has left us.