Feb. 11, 2014


by Tess Gallagher

I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don't cut that one.
I don't cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.

"Choices" by Tess Gallagher from Dear Ghosts. © Graywolf Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1778 that Voltaire (books by this author) returned to Paris after living in exile for 28 years in protest against France's religious fanaticism. He was a crusader for human rights and one of the most respected people in Europe.

When he was allowed to return home, more than 300 people came to visit him his first day in the city. One of those visitors was Benjamin Franklin, fresh from helping to lead the revolution in the United States of America. Franklin had brought his grandson with him and asked Voltaire to bless the little boy.

When Voltaire rode in his carriage to the theater to see the premiere of his last play, his carriage could barely move through the streets packed with crowds of his admirers. When he got to the theater, the audience cheered him and an actor placed a crown of laurel on his head. Voltaire died two months later. Because of his controversial religious views, the Catholic Church refused to bury him in holy ground, so his body had to be smuggled out of the city and buried in a cemetery run by a liberal priest.

Voltaire's body was moved to the Pantheon in 1791 after the French Revolution. His epitaph reads, "Poet, philosopher, historian, he gave wings to the human spirit and prepared us to be free."

It was on this day in 1990 that Nelson Mandela (books by this author) was released from Victor Verster Prison, outside Cape Town, South Africa. He had been imprisoned for 27 years because of his involvement with the African National Congress. The ANC was the main group resisting the apartheid government, and after decades of nonviolence, some members of the group — including Mandela — had begun advocating violence as the only way to deal with the brutal and violent tactics of the government. When Mandela was released he was 71 years old, and South Africans were shocked to realize that he no longer looked the same as he did in 1964, the last time he was seen publicly. Many of his most enthusiastic supporters hadn't even been born when he was imprisoned. The government had not released photos of Mandela during his decades behind bars, and the public still pictured him the way he looked in his 40s: a tall, strong man with a boxer's build, broad shoulders, a round face, and a full beard. When he emerged from prison, he was slender and slightly stooped, with a narrow face and white hair. His eyesight and lungs had been damaged by working in limestone quarries.

In 1985, President P.W. Botha had declared a state of emergency, enforcing even stricter curfews and punishments, and giving white law enforcement broader powers. Violence escalated, and the international community imposed sanctions and pulled their money out of South African banks. The economy was weak and there were continued demands for Mandela's release. In 1988, Mandela contracted tuberculosis, and Botha was worried he would die in prison and make the government look even worse. Botha offered Mandela a deal: release from prison in return for publicly condemning the ANC's violent resistance. To Botha's shock, Mandela refused. He wrote a speech that was read in public by his daughter Zinzi. His speech included the lines: "Let Botha [...] renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. [...] I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom. [...] I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return."

The following year, Botha suffered a stroke and left office. The new president, F.W. de Klerk, had spent his whole career as a right-wing conservative. But he saw that times were changing and that South Africa's economy would collapse if he didn't end apartheid. He began freeing prisoners, and on February 2nd, 1990, he gave a speech to parliament. He hadn't told anyone what he was going to say, not even his wife. He announced that he was unbanning the African National Congress and the South African Communist party, and freeing Nelson Mandela. The parliament was shocked, and his fellow conservatives booed. On February 10th, de Klerk met with Mandela to tell him the news that he would be freed the next day. Mandela said he would prefer to be given a full week's notice. De Klerk said later: "That is when I realized that long hours of negotiation lay ahead with this man." But in this one thing de Klerk got his way, and at the end of the meeting, he and Mandela shared a glass of whiskey.

Mandela left Victor Verster prison just after 4 p.m. on February 11th. The sky was bright blue, and Mandela walked through the prison gates holding hands with his wife, Winnie, the other hand raised in a clenched fist. He wore a suit and tie; his supporters waiting outside the prison were wearing T-shirts with an image of the young Mandela. Mandela and his wife rode to the Cape Town City Hall, where he addressed a huge crowd. He said: "The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. [...] We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts." He ended by quoting himself, from the speech he gave during the 1964 trial that landed him in prison. He said: "I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

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