Expressway: The day Long Islanders cheered for Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela acknowledges the crowd after donning a

Nelson Mandela acknowledges the crowd after donning a New York Yankees warm-up jacket and cap during a rally in his honor at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. (June 22, 1990) (Credit: AP Photo Ron Frehm)

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The passing of Nelson Mandela took me back to June 21, 1990, the day the historic South African leader came to Yankee Stadium.

At the time, I was working for the Nassau County Economic Opportunity Commission, a not-for-profit anti-poverty agency in Hempstead, as executive assistant to chief executive John L. Kearse. John was my mentor and personal hero for persevering to get economic opportunity for minority and poor people of Nassau County.

After South African authorities released Mandela from prison earlier in 1990, John wanted to make sure that our organization's constituents would be able to attend festivities being planned for Mandela's triumphant visit in June to New York City.


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Bill Lynch, a former employee and consultant to EOC, was then an assistant to New York City Mayor David Dinkins. He called and told us that a large tribute was being planned at Yankee Stadium, but money was needed to carry it off. John was able to find unrestricted funds in our agency's budget to help the cause.

A brief story in Newsday after Mandela's death last week reported that 1,200 Nassau and Suffolk county residents attended, crammed into buses to get to the event. I was among those people.

Our organization and others hired 20 or so buses for the big day. They were lined up along Jackson Avenue in Hempstead. When all attendees were aboard, the buses moved out with police escorts all the way to Yankee Stadium. The escorts started with Hempstead Village police, and continued with Garden City police, Nassau County police and state police.

Newsday's report of the Long Island contingent said, "Most of the riders were black, some traveled alone, others with children." The Newsday story said that on one bus, a song in honor of Mandela by the R&B group Frankie Beverly and Maze played over and over, with riders cheering and shouting "Mandela!" along with the music.

Our group entered the Stadium and was escorted up the stairs to a section high up in the "cheap seats," but directly across from the podium that Mandela would use. The crowd was fired up, but respectful. We rose every few minutes to proclaim "amandela!" -- the Zulu word for power -- and other words of joy and respect. Here was the man who symbolized the elimination of apartheid in South Africa.

I do not remember the words of Mandela's speech, but to this day, I can recall the emotion that he aroused. Even from a distance, his stately and dignified carriage on the field was remarkable. This event was the beginning of my understanding of the significance of what he had done in South Africa and what he would do to advance the cause of human rights in the world for the next two decades.

For this rich experience, I'm ever grateful to John Kearse, who remembered his people on Long Island and went the extra mile to ensure that this world-changing event would be shared by them as well as the "important" people of New York City. John died in 2007 at age 76.

Amandela! Rest in peace Nelson Mandela. You have taught the whole world an unforgettable lesson.

Reader Leone Baum lives in Hempstead.

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