On this day in 1990: Nelson Mandela visits Detroit

In 2014, a portion of Detroit's Atwater Street was renamed Nelson Mandela Drive | Ken Coleman

South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela visited Detroit on June 28, 1990. Part of his historic eight-city, 10-day tour of the United States, the Motor City visit occurred after his February release from prison. 

The tour also included an address before a joint session of Congress. The 71-year-old Mandela had been held in custody for 27 years for pushing back against apartheid, a government system where whites carried out Jim Crow-like measure of control over the indigenous people of color.

Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, civil rights icon Rosa Parks and UAW President Owen Bieber greeted the leader of the African National Congress (ANC) and his wife, Winnie, at Detroit Metro Airport. Mandela then visited the Ford Mustang Plant in Dearborn and was the featured speaker at a momentous rally at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, which attracted about 50,000 people. 

As the Mandelas emerged from a car that was driven onto the baseball field, attendees chanted, “Viva, Mandela” and “Amandla,” a word used among indigenous South Africans that means “power,” a popular rallying cry to resist apartheid. Several noted music performers placed their stamp on the event, including Ortheia Barnes, Aretha Franklin, the Winans and Stevie Wonder.

“Sisters and brothers, friends and comrades, the man who is speaking is not a stranger here,” Mandela said. “The man who is speaking is a member of the UAW. I am your flesh and blood.”

Young, Detroit’s first Black mayor, led an effort to raise $1 million for Mandela’s ANC.

“One thing that Detroiters can learn from Mandela’s visit is how a man can remain dedicated to his principles and persevere in the struggle for freedom over the years,” Young said that week. “Here in the Detroit area, there is too much selfishness among us.”

Mandela Detroit visit souvenir booklet cover | Ken Coleman

The Advance spoke last week with two keys players in the Mandela Detroit visit.

Akua Budu-Watkins, a veteran activist, educator and organizer, helped to plan the effort. She said that the visit was important because it “connected the dots” between the American civil rights and the pan African movements. Both struggles, Budu-Watkins said, reached the consciousness of white Americans and others around the globe.

“So many more people understood our plight better,” she said.

Bishop Edgar Vann, pastor of Second Ebenezer Church in Detroit, was tapped by Young to assemble a 2,000-member mass choir to perform during the Tiger Stadium event. It was multi-racial, and included city and suburban residents, Vann recalled. He only had three weeks to recruit its members and to rehearse.

“It was and has been one of the real signature moments of my life to put that together,” Vann said.

Nelson Mandela would later become South Africa’s first democratically elected president, serving from 1994 to 1999. He died on Dec. 5, 2013, at age 95.  

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.