That Saturday in June, 23 years ago, it was a clear, hot day. The Coliseum was packed with people who had come to see Nelson Mandela, recently released from prison in South Africa after serving 27 years as a political prisoner.
When he stepped up to the podium, 60,000 people leapt to their feet and waved yellow, black and green ribbons -- the colors of the African National Congress flag.
He thanked everyone who had been fighting to end apartheid. "It is you, the people of Oakland, the people of the Bay Area, who have given me and my delegation strength and hope to go back and continue the struggle," he said.
"It was one of Oakland's proudest moments," said Sandre Swanson, deputy mayor of Oakland.
Swanson, then on the staff of Congressman Ron Dellums, coordinated the visit. He recalled shaking Mandela's hand after his arrival. "He said how much he appreciated Oakland standing with him when he was in prison. He was excited about the multiracial nature of the crowd and that there were so many children. He came to say thank you. It was very moving."
The Bay Area had one of the strongest anti-apartheid movements in the country, with participation from unions, churches, local governments, artists and, of course, students. It was multiracial and multigenerational. Dellums started introducing anti-apartheid legislation in 1972; he would introduce it 12 times before it was finally passed in 1986.
As mayor of Berkeley, Gus Newport appointed a divestment commission in 1981 and Berkeley became one of the first cities to adopt a divestment ordinance, withdrawing city funds from banks that did business in South Africa.
"At the time, everyone dismissed it as symbolic. But divestment became a major movement," said Louis Freedberg, appointed to the commission by Newport. Freedberg, a white South African, was active in the anti-apartheid movement. He helped organize the United States-South Africa Sister Community Project that developed links between black communities in the two countries. Freedberg is now the executive director of EdSource.
Divestment was the focus of extensive protests at UC Berkeley.
"It started in response to the protests in South Africa boycotting the elections that were going to let Indians and coloreds vote but continue to deny the vote to black South Africans," said Pedro Noguera, then the student body president. He is now a professor of education at New York University. "Berkeley emerged as a leader with one of the largest protests. And it was sustained, lasting for two years."
UC Berkeley had $4.2 billion invested with corporations doing business in South Africa, more than any other university.
"That raised the stakes. By the time the regents voted (on divestment), our movement had become almost mainstream with support from the faculty and staff. People wanted to be part of the movement," Noguera said.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, said the first time she got arrested was at an anti-apartheid rally at Cal. She was on Dellums' staff at the time. "There was another big protest in downtown Oakland. We all brought passbooks and burned them in a big bonfire," she said.
Black South Africans were required to carry passbooks to control their movement. She attributes the strength of the Bay Area anti-apartheid movement to the area's history. "We had the Black Panther Party and movements for peace and justice in a big way. People here understood what was at stake and the forces that would try to stop it. They took a lot of risks."
On a trip to South Africa six years ago, Lee discovered Mandela and the ANC were still on the U.S. terrorist watch list. "Can you imagine a Nobel Peace Prize winner, former president of a country, world leader, and he was still on the list?" When Lee returned to D.C., she started working to get Mandela off the list, succeeding in time for his 90th birthday.
In the Bay Area, labor played a central role in the anti-apartheid movement. In 1984, 200 longshoremen refused to unload the South African cargo from a ship docked in San Francisco. They faced loss of pay and possible expulsion from the shipping industry.
"It is an act of conscience," Leo Robinson, one of the protesters, said at the time. "It is an expression of solidarity with the people and the labor movement in South Africa. At some point, your conscience has to take over and ignore the law on the books in respect of a higher law."
There was also a cultural component. The choir on stage with Mandela at the Coliseum was Vukani Mawethu. It grew out of a huge concert in 1986 organized by Fania Davis, an attorney at the time, featuring James Madholpe, a member of the ANC who was called the South African Paul Robeson. Davis brought him to the Bay Area to teach a group of musicians and singers anti-apartheid songs. (Davis now runs Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth.)
"At the end of the concert, he turned to us and said, 'Your name is Vukani Mawethu,'" said Andrea Turner, lead musical director of the group. The name means People Arise. "A core group of us continued to keep the choir together." They sing in Zulu, Xhosa and Sethu, as well as English, and perform throughout the state. Turner said about five of the original choir members are still with the group. In 2009 they traveled to South Africa and had a private audience with Mandela.
"It was paralyzing. To touch his hand, hear him speak. He thanked us for our struggle to bring down apartheid," Turner said. "Some young people were with us and they got to touch and meet him. He told us the fight for freedom is not over, it is never over. He saw how we were passing it on to the younger generation."
Pat Jameson, executive director of Vukani Mawethu, had her two daughters and granddaughter with her. Her granddaughter had drawn a portrait of Mandela and gave it to him.
In thinking back, everyone emphasized that the success of the anti-apartheid movement demonstrated that people can effect change.
"Think of how many protests you get involved with and never win. Not only did UC divest, but Mandela was released. We chanted 'Free Mandela' but no one thought it would happen. Hearing him speak at the Coliseum, it was almost surreal," Noguera said.
Freedberg covered the first negotiation between the South African government and the ANC. "We were on the lawns of the estate built by Cecil Rhodes. People who had been in exile just a week earlier. I can't really even describe it. I just thought I couldn't believe it was happening."
Four years later, Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa, voted in by the majority of the population.
The night he died, Vukani Mawethu members got together to talk and sing.
"It's heavy, even when you know it's coming," Jameson said. "I am blessed to have been with him in April 2009."
"When I first heard Mandela passed, I felt sadness. I had to be quiet," Swanson said. "But then I had to smile and remembered the opportunity I had to meet him. Over the years I realized how important that was for the community. I am so glad that was one of my experiences."
Brenda Payton, a former Oakland Tribune columnist, is a freelance journalist. Contact her at 510-208-2797 or email@example.com.