Today marks the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. Mandela, the leader of the anti-apartheid movement who became South Africa's first black president, left anger behind after spending more than 27 years in prison—he believed in the power of truth to heal. “History will judge us,” he said, “by our success or failure in turning the tide of poverty.” Mandela knew—more than most—that “the long walk continues.”
A few weeks ago, on a trip to Oslo, we visited the Nobel Peace Center, a museum that celebrates the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, among them Nelson Mandela. The permanent exhibition, titled “the Nobel Field,” is housed in a large almost pitch black room. Hundreds of tiny blue and violet lights illuminate the space. Small screens display a photo and bio for each of the 128 Peace laureates—86 men, 16 women, and 23 organizations. The darkness surrounding the screens makes for intimacy—their stories come to life. There is a bond tying them together though the path towards peace is multi-faceted. Some work to ban bombs, or reduce armies. They use non-violent means to affect change while others mediate disputes or promote solidarity among nations. And some open doors to refugees and migrants who cross borders.
In 1993, with plans for the first ever one person/one vote election to be held in South Africa well underway, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded both Nelson Mandela and President F. W. de Klerk the Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech delivered in Oslo, Mandela recognized the contributions of those who had come before him, two South Africans who had received the same award: Chief Albert Luthuli in 1960 and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1984. He also paid tribute to a third “predecessor”—Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Let the strivings of us all prove Martin Luther King, Jr., to have been correct when he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war. Let the efforts of us all prove that he was not a mere dreamer when he spoke of the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace being more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.”
Stopping to read the stories on the screen, I am moved by the lives—and the convictions—of several of the women, perhaps lesser well-known: Bertha Kinsky von Suttner, author of "Lay Down Your Arms," and the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize (1905); Jane Addams of Hull House, the social activist (1931); Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, leaders in achieving a peaceful resolution of the Troubles in Ireland (1976); Rigoberta Menchu Tum, an indigenous rights activist from Guatemala (1991); Jody Williams, founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (1997); Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt environmental movement (2004); and Malala Yousafzai, advocate for girls' education and, at age 17, the youngest recipient of the prize (2014). Their stories need to be heard.
Walking into “the Nobel Field” is a solemn, contemplative experience. It is also energizing. Those tiny lights, a promise that midnight will not be starless.