UPDATE: Global Exchange and Priority Africa Network will be celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela and the South Africa anti-apartheid movement with a film screening of Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony Monday August 12 at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, CA. Purchase your tickets online at http://www.globalexchange.org/Amandla. More information.

photo: Getty images

Nelson Mandela’s freedom walk photo: Getty images

A feeling of helplessness rushed over me upon seeing the words ‘Not Guilty’ next to George Zimmerman’s name a few days ago in the case of Trayvon Martin’s murder.

Thousands of people across the United States have taken to the streets and the internet to cry for justice in the face of a system that makes this decision permissible.

Working at an organization that is part of the struggle for economic, environmental, and social justice, I know that stories of racism, inequality, and injustice such as this are not new and stretch beyond the U.S. border.

So how can I shake off this feeling of helplessness? Well, I’ve turned off the television and opened a book – Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

Reflecting on Madiba’s life and his never-ending struggle to end apartheid in the face of a system that put him in jail for 27 years for his convictions, has been a good source of hope for me during this time and with news of Mr. Mandela’s ailing health coming at a time when we celebrate his 95th birthday have made his lessons in the quest for human rights even more poignant.

The Long Walk to Freedom recounts his journey of becoming the moral and political leader he is today. His story showcases perseverance against all odds. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison under some of the most harsh conditions imaginable. He and his comrades were forced to break rocks in the hot sun. The rock dust from this punishing work fouled his tear ducts so his eyes were plagued with pain from dryness. Yet despite the torment of his physical pain, he never lost sight of the long-term goal: freedom for his people.

But the story of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa is not the story of Nelson Mandela alone. It is a story of many freedom fighters in South Africa and millions of other allies in other countries working in solidarity to stop the injustice and stand up for the sake of humanity.

That story reached the offices of Global Exchange in the early years of the organization. When the organization was founded in 1988, a lot of our work was motivated by the solidarity struggle with the South African people. In our formative years, we stood with our friends to join the fight to end apartheid and were surprised and overjoyed when we saw the work of so many groups that were able to come together to win the struggle.

When Mandela came out of the prison and recommended a Truth and Reconciliation Committee as one of his first acts — there was a period of grace that has been unmatched before or since. All of sudden this wasn’t an issue of national civil rights or national liberation but a vision of how we could be true internationalists.

Photo on Mandela from an early Global Exchange newsletter

Photo of Mandela from an early Global Exchange newsletter

Global Exchange took these lessons of international solidarity to form the basis of our work centered around the idea of people-to-people ties. From speaking tours with anti-apartheid leaders, to travels to places like Cuba, Haiti, and Southern Africa, to partnerships with solidarity organizations in our community and worldwide, we connected individuals in the U.S. to learn about the shared struggle we all face at home and globally. We applied the words of former President of Mozambique, Samora Machel, of international solidarity not being charity, but to “aid the development of humanity to the highest level possible.”

Now 25 years later, in the wake and the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict we are challenged to not only think about the victory from struggle great figures like Nelson Mandela have led, but also about our responsibility as a collective force to continue leadership down the road to justice.

So, thank you Nelson Mandela for not only instilling hope in me during this time of despair, but for being a beacon of hope in the struggle for equality and justice. And thank you to all those who continue to struggle and keep the legacy of Nelson Mandela strong.

As we celebrate his 95th birthday, we can honor his work by replicating in our own behavior the determination and perseverance that he so nobly displayed.

Join International Mandela Day to take action and inspire change in your communities.

Have a 25th anniversary Global Exchange story to tell? Share your story with us!

P.S. Here in the Bay Area we will be celebrating Mandela and the movement again with Priority Africa Network by showing the classic film Amandla! on August 12th and the Grand Lake Theater (3200 Grand Ave, Oakland). Inspiring music and informed speakers! More information.