The Reverend Cecil Williams hobbled down his stairs with a frailty unfamiliar for anyone who’s ever encountered the preacher, ruling the pulpit at San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church. He’d been feeling ill, but now his face perked up, and the preacher in him sprang forth as he talked about the photo.
The picture showed a much younger Williams looking toward Nelson Mandela, who beamed back at him. It was 1990, and Williams had just introduced Mandela at the Oakland Coliseum, four months after Mandela was released from prison after 27 years.
“That picture you see of me speaking after greeting him,” said Williams leaning forward, “is a picture I cherish.”
Mandela had just completed a grueling nine-city tour of the U.S., thanking people for the support they’d shown him during his years in prison. The Bay Area, got a special thanks as the area that had fought early, and boldly against apartheid in South Africa.
“I was so overcome by this man who was not just soft spoken,” Williams said. “But who articulated and interpreted to people his genuine humanness.”
Bay Area Congressman Ron Dellums had begun the battle 18 years earlier – posing legislation to divest in South Africa.
Williams had been arrested in the mid-eighties as he joined protesters on the U.C. Berkeley campus calling on the university to divest. The groups waged demonstrations and sit-ins, some that ended in confrontations with police. Berkeley Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, a Cal student at the time, helped organize some of the protests.
“We had an over 100 day sit-in at Sproul plaza,” Skinner said. “We went to the office of the president and basically said we won’t move until UC divests.”
Skinner remembers Mandela’s 1990 visit and his speech in which he called the UC vote to divest a pivotal moment in the fight against apartheid.
“It was so thrilling,” Skinner said. “That we had a role, not only in his release, but in the change in the freedom and democracy in South Africa.
Berkeley was among the first cities in the U.S. to vote to divest from South Africa. When Mandela was finally released, Williams thought to himself, big things were ahead.
“He walks out of prison, 27 years,” Williams said. “Immediately you could tell that this man was going to do something quite different from anybody else.”