Jailed for 28 years in the battle against apartheid, Nelson Mandela, African National Congress leader, embarked on a world tour after his February 1990 release. The first stop in the United States was New York City on June 20, 1990.
Nelson Mandela’s visit was not a simple courtesy call; it was a recognition of the leadership role New York City government played in opposing apartheid—racially discriminatory laws—in South Africa through imposing economic sanctions.
Although activists had rallied against South Africa for decades, it was in the mid-1980’s after South Africans protests were violently repressed that Americans stepped up the game. Hundreds of people, including government leaders, athletes, musicians, educators, and more were arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington D.C. More than 40,000 protesters gathered in Central Park in 1986 on the 10th anniversary of the Soweto uprising during which 500 black students were killed. And, the New York City Council passed legislation that authorized the withdrawal of $665 million in pension investments from banks engaged in South Africa, as recommended by a panel convened by Mayor Ed Koch. In 1990, Mayor David Dinkins increased the sanctions to ban City agencies from purchasing from companies doing business in South Africa and imposed a rating system on banks.
Tens of thousands of people cheered for Mandela as his motorcade made its way from John F. Kennedy International Airport through Brooklyn and into Manhattan. The motorcade was swamped by enthusiastic Black and Latino teenagers who ran alongside. In Manhattan, he was then honored with a ticker-tape parade led by Mayor David N. Dinkins.
Dinkins greeted Mandela at City Hall with great emotion: “We welcome you with open arms and full hearts—as a leader, as a brother, as a friend, as an ally, and as a magnificent example of commitment, conviction and courage…. You have arrived in a city that for generations has welcomed people fleeing poverty and persecution, deprivation and oppression.” Dinkins presented Mandela with the key to the City of New York: “…. This is the key to freedom. It represents the power of the people of this City pushing against doors that have been slammed shut far too long now…”
While in the city, he visited Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, addressed the United Nations General Assembly, attended a rally at the Harlem State Office Building on 125th Street, worshipped at a moving ecumenical service at Riverside Church in Manhattan, and greeted a vast cheering audience at Yankee Stadium, all the while urging continued support for the economic boycott against the apartheid government in South Africa. The three-day visit celebrating Mandela’s message of peace and freedom is memorialized through photographs preserved within Mayor David N. Dinkins Photograph Collection.