A historian lives suspended between past and present. As I heard about Nelson Mandela’s death and life last week, I also pored over editions of the 1955 and 1956 Jackson (Mississippi) Daily News. I was shocked how much the struggles against racial caste in South Africa and our own South resonated and how quickly our memory of both the anti-apartheid and civil rights struggles became sanitized and self-congratulatory.
Born in 1918, Mandela joined the African National Congress as a young lawyer in 1944. South Africa, scarred by a history of slavery, launched the apartheid system in 1948. In 1952, as the NAACP began to file school desegregation suits in South Carolina, Mandela set up South Africa’s first black law firm. The ANC asked Mandela to make plans for the party to operate underground if banned by the regime.