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#RememberWhensdays: Nelson Mandela visits Yankee Stadium

The South African icon enjoyed a raucous welcome in the States

This article has been resurfaced in honor of what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 98th birthday. It was originally published as part of The Undefeated’s #RememberWhensdays series.


More than 1 million people filled the streets of New York over a three-day stretch in June 1990. There was a ticker-tape parade through the Canyon of Heroes, a Harlem street rally, a speech at a Brooklyn high school and, finally, an electric Yankee Stadium concert.

It was just the start.

The three-day whirlwind New York trip was part of a larger six-week Freedom Tour that saw one man visit 13 different countries. One historic man, that is: Nelson Mandela.

The South African activist who would be elected president in 1994 was a champion of peaceful protests and a global advocate for human rights, forever working to try to end apartheid. His leadership and principles were rewarded — with a nearly three-decade prison sentence in 1962.

Nelson Mandela acknowledges the crowd after donning a New York Yankees warm-up jacket and cap during a rally in his honor Thursday, June 22, 1990 at New York'

Nelson Mandela acknowledges the crowd after donning a New York Yankees warm-up jacket and cap during a rally in his honor Thursday, June 22, 1990 at New York’s Yankee Stadium. He told the crowd, “I am a Yankee.”

AP Photo/Ron Frehm

But after serving 27 years in prison, Mandela wasn’t broken or bitter. He was emboldened. When he finally emerged on the other side of the prison gates as a free man, he raised both fists high into the sky in a black power salute. As the New York Daily News wrote then:

Mandela’s first word to tens of thousands of blacks who had not seen his face or heard his voice for 27 years was one of defiance.

“Amandla!” — Power! — he shouted in a firm but slightly scratchy voice.

Thousands of voices rang out with the reply: “Awethu!” — Is ours!

A little more than four months following his release, Mandela would have Yankee Stadium packed to the gills, the crowd chanting a familiar call: “Amandla! Amandla!”

At the time, Mandela was 71, but you couldn’t tell on first glance. Before leading the crowd at Yankee Stadium on June 21, 1990, Mandela delivered a speech at Riverside Church that culminated with folks dancing in the aisles. Before the church service, Mandela delivered speeches outside the chapel and he received a check for $200,000 to be used for schools, housing, medicine and refugee assistance in South Africa. Winnie, Mandela’s wife at the time, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson flanked Mandela, as a standing ovation emerged.

”Do I look like a tired man?” Mandela asked the New York Times.

Nope.

The entire Freedom Tour featured people from all over the country clamoring to meet Mandela and shake his hand. But New York, in particular, was littered with folks trying to show their appreciation for the man. As the New York Times wrote, “Longtime liberal fundraiser Arthur Krim hosted a cocktail party at his East Side townhouse, with guests laying out $1,000 a head to greet Mandela. Oscar winner Robert De Niro invited Mandela to his new Tribeca Film Center, where the star-studded crowd included Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and rocker Little Steven Van Zandt.”

All eyes were on Mandela at the end of the third night in New York as he spoke to 55,000 fans inside Yankee Stadium. By the time he was done, Mandela would be clad in Yankees garb. From the New York Times:

Mr. Mandela ended his speech by embracing New York as the city has embraced him. ”The people of New York, we admire you, we respect you and, above all, we love you,” he said.

Mayor David N. Dinkins then placed a Yankee jacket on Mr. Mandela’s shoulders and a Yankee hat on his head. Mr. Mandela smiled and declared: ”You now know who I am. I am a Yankee.”

Even former Yankees owner/curmudgeon George Steinbrenner couldn’t help but be impressed. After the rollicking speech, Steinbrenner showed up at City Hall the next morning with a check to cover all the expenses incurred from Mandela’s three-day fundraiser, according to the New York Daily News.

Salute.

Ryan Cortes is a staff writer for The Undefeated. Lemon pepper his wings.