DENVER — Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, who marched in ‘Free Mandela’ protests marches in the 1960s and met the anti-apartheid icon decades later after he’d become South Africa’s first democratically elected president, paid tribute to Nelson Mandela Thursday hours after news of his death.
Webb, who was Denver’s first African American mayor, told reporters at his downtown office that Mandela was a hero — to himself, to blacks and to the world.
“For me, Mandela was a symbolic hero, the moral conscience of the world,” Webb said. “Everyone identified with his commitment to freedom and justice, regardless of what country or what nation you were from.”
As a young man, Webb was galvanized by Mandela and the wider liberation struggles of blacks in South Africa and across the African continent.
He took part in ‘Free Mandela’ marches in Washington, DC, held fundraisers for Mandela’s African National Congress and, after being elected mayor, had opportunities to meet Mandela in South Africa in 1994 and on Mandela’s trips to the United States, including attending a state dinner at the White House that was hosted by President Bill Clinton.
Like most who met Mandela and nearly all who marvel at his life and legacy, Webb is awed by the leader’s lack of spite and anger, even after having spent decades in prison and a long struggle for freedom in which he saw so many friends and countrymen humiliated, tortured and murdered.
“No bitterness, no remorse and he was one of the first ones to start bringing the guards and the inmates together, saying we’re going to build one nation, one country,” Webb said. “He understood what it took to bring a nation back together.”
Webb likened Mandela’s legacy to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, remembering what it was like being in a room with him and so many other world leaders, noting that Mandela stood head and shoulders above them all — in height and stature.
“He speaks with such moral clarity,” Webb said. “I’ve seen him around other presidents and dignitaries. And when he walks into the room, it looks like everybody else shrinks. He had that much presence — moral stature presence.”
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock also issued a statement on Mandela’s passing.
“With great sadness we mourn the loss of the great statesman and peacemaker Nelson Mandela. There can be no mistaking his impact on freedom in South Africa, but we must also recognize how he provided hope to all those seeking justice around the world.
“In his own words: ‘There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.’
“He exemplified that sentiment, never shrinking from the monumental tasks before him. Today and always he will stand as an icon to those who dream of mending the divisions that keep us apart.”