Dancers from Gloria Eve Performing Arts perform a traditional South...

Dancers from Gloria Eve Performing Arts perform a traditional South African boot dance during a tribute to the life of Nelson Mandela at the African American Museum of Nassau County in Hempstead. (Jan. 11, 2014) Credit: Steven Sunshine

The life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who became South Africa's first black president, was celebrated in Hempstead yesterday at a memorial service featuring traditional African music and dance.

Roughly 200 Long Islanders of all races and ages attended the two-hour ceremony at the African American Museum of Nassau County, praising Mandela, who died last month at age 95, as a pioneer who fought vigorously against inequality and hatred.

"Mandela's story is one of focus and of a determined mind," said Joysetta Pearse of Freeport, the manager of the museum, which features African American artwork and exhibits on civil rights leaders such as Rosa Parks. "He always put country above his personal self. Self-sacrifice is the lesson we would like people to leave with today."

The program avoided somber remembrances and politically themed speeches, reveling rather in Mandela's life through tribal songs, with musicians dressed in vibrantly colored African attire and playing drums, percussions and bells.

Spiritual dances conducted to honor the dead were paired with an up-tempo step routine by the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Adelphi University and a traditional "gumboot dance," where the Hempstead-based performers wore bells around their ankles that chimed as they danced.

"This is a celebration not for Mandela, but for everybody," said Steven Lloyd of West Hempstead, the drummer and officiant for the service.

A revered statesman and freedom fighter, Mandela was convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow his South African government and spent nearly three decades in prison. He emerged from prison and transitioned the nation from decades of white apartheid rule to a Democratic system of government.

Mandela, who forgave his captors, would go on to became a worldwide symbol of peace, justice and compassion.

"He reached across oceans and represented the hope not of people but of peoples plural," said professor Steven Skinner of Adelphi University.

Terrence Harris of Freeport, who attended the service, said Mandela's message of resiliency in the face of adversity still resonates today.

"The key thing is to continue fighting for justice," he said.

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