Nelson Mandela’s impromptu lesson to Connecticut Democrats

On the morning of July 16, 1992, Connecticut delegates to the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York were restive. The party leadership had neglected to order Danish or decent coffee for their morning meeting. Some alternates complained their seats were too distant from the stage.

This business of nominating a new leader of the free world was proving burdensome. And then a door swung open, and U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd entered with a look-what-I’ve-brought-you smile on his face. Behind him was a slightly built man with a winsome smile, two days away from his 74th birthday.

It was Nelson Mandela.

Mandela, who had addressed the Security Council of the United Nations the previous day, told the Connecticut delegates that the support of people like them were an inspiration during his 27 years in prison, when he grew into an international symbol of resistance to apartheid in South Africa. I was one of the reporters who spotted security in the hallway and had hurried into the room in time for Mandela’s arrival.

“Some of you have no idea what you mean to us in South Africa,” Mandela said, his voice surprisingly soft. “I’m very happy, indeed, that I have the opportunity of expressing my gratitude to you.”

Jan Parker, then a state representative from New Haven, clasped her hands over her heart. Her husband, Henry Parker, had worked on economic sanctions against South Africa as a state treasurer. And now, Mandela stood before her, freed in part by the efforts of thousands like her husband. Tears flowed over her cheeks, past her jaw and down her neck. Her lips quivered.

Miles Rapoport, then a state representative from West Hartford, later Connecticut’s secretary of the state, climbed on a chair and took pictures with a pocket camera. Mandela’s imprisonment was the cause of his precocious start in activism, protesting as a 9-year-old in favor of South African divestment outside a Chase Manhattan branch in Great Neck, N.Y.

“You may regard this as a small and unimportant occasion,” Mandela told the delegates, a small smile on his lips.

Today, the small moment looms large in the memories of Parker and Rapoport as the world mourns Mandela’s death at age 95.

In 1992, Mandela then was two years away from being elected president, but he already was a symbol of healing and forgiveness as he struggled, largely successfully, to guide South Africa through a peaceful transition of power from white minority to black majority.

“It was just the most wonderful moment of my life,” Parker recalled Friday. “He represented something greater than ourselves. It was, ‘In the forgiveness, comes the healing.’ ”

She said she and her husband reflected on the memory upon hearing of Mandela’s death.

“I’m 82 years old,” said Parker, who is now working on the transition team of Toni Harp, who will take office soon as New Haven’s first African-American female mayor. “I can tell you it impacted my life.”

Rapoport remembers well the small gripes before Mandela’s arrival on a Thursday, near the end of the convention that nominated Bill Clinton as president. Delegates had arrived in the room on rubbery legs, short on sleep.

“Lot of just chatter and complaints, some complaining about convention logistics and eating and all the petty things that can seem important if you’re at a convention,” Rapoport said. “The minute he walked in, the place was silent. It was a moment of great privilege to be in a small room within 10 or 15 feet of Nelson Mandela.”

Security warned the delegates not to crowd Mandela.

“It was a total crush of people,” Rapoport said. “If you weren’t ready to elbow your way forward – I thought, ‘Getting a picture standing on a chair is good enough.’ ”

Parker said she floated toward Mandela, not quite sure how she reached him. He seemed to guide her up and onto a low riser.

“We weren’t supposed to embrace him,” she said.

But Parker found herself next to him, weeping and speechless. He patted her on the shoulder and murmured, “Yes, yes, I understand.”

Mandela apologized for not staying longer.

“Just remember that we respect you. We admire you,” he said. “And above all, we love you.”

Twenty-one years later, Jan Parker and Miles Rapoport remember.

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