Wilmot James Speaks about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela

by: Lawrence Perry

The Lecture

When you are a college student, it is easy to forget the purpose of school. While it is important to earn the necessary degree for your field, you should also learn to prepare for real life. As Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, once said: “Knowledge is a tool, and like all tools, its impact is in the hands of the user.” This might be why Western Connecticut State University chooses to have speakers give lectures as often as it does.

On February 8th, at 5:30, Westconn hosted a lecture presented by Dr. Wilmot James. James is a three-time author, professor, public health expert, and former member of the South African Parliament for eight years. His lecture focused on Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. The lecture, titled, “Justice, Inclusion, and Civility: Why King and Mandela Are Still Relevant Today,” took place in Ives Concert Hall.

Patti Ivry, a retired dean of Professional Studies, was the one who contacted James and convinced him to speak at Westconn. Ivry surprised the audience by announcing that she would be returning after four weeks of retirement, which prompted a burst of healthy applause.

The audience was full of Westconn alumni, well-dressed as if this were an important business meeting. There were no students at first. Then at 5:58, after James had begun speaking, over a dozen students arrived.

“Welcome,” he said with a smirk. The audience chuckled.

History Rhymes

James emphasized the fact that King was a tremendous influence on not only Mandela, but Robert Kennedy. King’s death inspired Kennedy’s famous “Ripple of Hope” speech. As for Mandela, when he gave his famous Nobel prize acceptance speech, he mentioned and quoted King several times, even going so far as to credit him for the accomplishment.

“It will not be presumptuous of us,” Mandela said, “if we also add, among our predecessors, the name of another outstanding Nobel Peace Prize winner, the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.”

James could see history rhyming here. “As Oscar Wilde once said, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” James said.

MLK’s Politics

James highlighted King’s passion for social justice. While obviously concerned about black civil rights, King was also concerned about the Vietnam War. When Lyndon B. Johnson dragged his feet on the withdrawal of troops, King broke ties with him. In James’s opinion, this left King more vulnerable to assassins, because he was no longer under Johnson’s protection.

King was also passionate about helping the poor. James briefly mentioned the evil of poverty in a world of abundance, in a reference to King’s book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? The quote reads: “The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity.”

A Missed Opportunity

Dr. King’s message had a profound effect on Mandela. Though greatly influenced by King, Mandela would never meet him. He began his 27 year prison term in 1964, while King died in 1968.

“I want you to imagine that,” James said. “27 years.”

That number can be easy to gloss over. 27 years equals 324 months, which equals 9,855 days in prison, all because Mandela tried to do the right thing. King wasn’t the only person who died while Mandela was in jail. Mandela’s mother died in 1968, and his son died a year later. In both cases, he wasn’t allowed to attend their funerals.

For those that are unfamiliar, Mandela was imprisoned for fighting South Africa’s apartheid system. Apartheid, which literally means apartness, was a legal form of racial segregation. Think of white-only beaches in Africa. Think of laws dictating that 80% of the land was reserved for a white minority. Think of not being allowed to own property, own business or even own farm land in these territories. Those are a few examples of apartheid. And that is why Mandela was imprisoned.

According to James, Mandela was not a hateful man. He forgave his captors. However, he was angry at all the opportunities prison took from him.

Mandela’s Career

Mandela, with King’s ideals in his mind, rejuvenated South Africa. Like King, he spoke out against poverty. In a 2005 speech in London’s Trafalgar Square, he said “Where poverty exists, there is not true freedom.”

James highlighted all of Mandela’s accomplishments. He ended apartheid and got rid of South Africa’s secret police, along with the death squads–a section of the secret police tasked with assassinating black protestors.

Mandela tried to maximize inclusiveness. Though he was extremely popular, practically a shoe-in for election, he included the minority voters. He did this because he wanted to break the pattern of leaders who only appealed to constituents while ignoring everyone else. Mandela was also sure to enact a bill of rights, as well as unite the five separate armies. Both the extreme left and right had a voice while he was in charge.

James was sure to note that Mandela promised that he would be a one term president. He kept that promise, only ruling from 1994 to 1999.

Mandela on Racist Statues

In one interesting tidbit, James spoke about a situation similar to last year’s Charlottesville incident. There were several apartheid-era statues in South Africa, and people debated about whether or not they should be torn down. Surprisingly, Mandela was against tearing the statues down.

“In Mandela’s mind, this did more harm than good,” James said.

James emphasized the fact that Mandela had a unique approach to ruling. Mandela was very respectful of people’s point of view. Even if they did monstrous things, they were still people’s ancestors. Instead of tearing the statues down, Mandela had additional statues built, honoring the victims of apartheid.

Later, during a Q & A session, a woman asked for the conclusion of that story. How did the situation turn out? James told her that college students protested until the statues were removed. James didn’t agree with this, but it was already a done deal.

Mandela’s Personality

James spoke a lot about Mandela, the man. He met Mandela a few times and had great respect for him.

“Mandela was charming,” James said, “and able to persuade…Mandela made you feel like the most important person in the world. Mandela was always on time, a trait shared by his employees. Mandela had a naughty sense of humor.” This prompted chuckles from the crowd.

Funnily enough, James said Mandela was embarrassed to talk about sex. He only did it when absolutely necessary, like when speaking about Africa’s HIV problem.

James on Trump

While he talked about what a good leader Mandela was, he contrasted it with an example of a bad leader. James brought up Jacob Zuma, a controversial South African leader. Zuma was infamous for many things. He had a few extramarital affairs, some of which resulted in children. He was accused of raping an HIV-positive family friend. Though he was acquitted, he told the court that he showered to avoid catching HIV.

One of Zuma’s latest controversies was the use of state funds to pay for an expensive new house. According to a BBC report, the house included a cattle enclosure, an amphitheater, a swimming pool, a visitor center, and a chicken run. Keep in mind: many poor South Africans struggle to get enough water on a daily basis.

James said he’d be glad to “see the back of him,” which got laughter from the crowd.

This is a reference to the fact that Zuma was expected to step down soon. A week after James’s speech, the South African parliament voted for a new president. They only took eight minutes to vote in Cyril Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa had his first presidential address the next day, where he vowed to “turn the tide” on South Africa’s history of corruption.

James went on to compare Zuma to Trump. According to James, Trump and Zuma have a similar disregard for established laws. They just do what they feel like.

“[Trump] sees DACA as political fodder. He sees Native Americans as comic characters. He never apologizes. He’s incapable of shedding a tear,” James said.

As he was saying this, one professor gathered his things and walked out. It is unclear if the lecture prompted this.

The Conclusion

To end his speech, James shared a personal memory of Mandela. James visited Mandela towards the end of his life, when Mandela was in his 90s. James was surprised to find Mandela in a wheelchair, and looking frail.

Mandela chuckled and said, “You never thought you’d see me in a wheelchair, did you?”

As they were speaking, Mandela said something that James always remembered:

“If your government doesn’t do the right thing, take the fight to them.”

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