A Hero's Homecoming, of Sorts

BOSTON--To an unknowing passer-by, it might have looked like a rock concert.

The t-shirts read "Mandela: American Tour." The crowd held up colorful flags as if they were pocket lighters, urging on an encore. And the event even had a corporate sponsor.

Yes there was music, but this crowd of 250,000 had come for a different purpose. They came to witness African National Congress Deputy Nelson Mandela's triumphant arrival in the city he yesterday called his second home. And although Mandela hails from half a world away, the city of Boston treated him as if he were a hometown hero.

As Mandela spoke of the need for a worldwide movement to end apartheid, he praised the city where activists, college students and liberal politicians that spurred the American divestment movement for so many years.

"When one day our history is rewritten," he said, "the pioneering and leading role of Massachusetts will stand out like a shining diamond."

Mandela's speech came late in the day--two hours behind schedule--after a long afternoon of speeches and song. And while the ANC leader was making stops in Roxbury and at the JFK Library, the crowd at the Esplanade's Hatch Shell slowly grew, sometimes impatiently but always expecting something great.

One woman in a striped red shirt pushed her way through the seemingly unpenetrable crowd with a small child on her shoulder. "It's not for me," she pleaded with the displaced observers. "I just want my son to see Nelson."

And although many cursed the long wait, everyone was on a first name basis with Nelson. "If Nelson could wait 27 years," the prevailing wisdom whispered, "we can wait a few more hours."

But for all the waiting, Mandela's words did not disappoint.

"It was totally uplifting, it was beautiful," said Joyce Bulgar who watched the speech from the periphery of the Esplanade. "He's making history. It was worth the wait, I would have waited longer," she said.

Eight year-old Anthony Heckman, standing nearby, nodded his head, agreeing with Bulgar's assesment. "It was the funnest thing I've ever done," Heckman said of the speech by the man he called "a Black leader and a civil rights leader who wants freedom for all people."

Some members of the crowd were more skeptical--not of Mandela's message, but of the prospect for change. "There's a lot of promises," said Malcolm, comparing Saturday's events to last spring's Earth Day celebration.

"A lot of times, people just like to come out and be in a crowd," he says.

Others in the crowd were optimistic, hoping that the day-long celebration would help remedy racial injustice not only in South Africa, but also in Boston. "What he has done is make people in Boston recognize that when you hate anyone for racial reasons, you create problems," said local resident Bill Smith.

"It will help those who listen," Smith said of Mandela's speech. "But it will do nothing for people who don't like other people."