You could say Nelson Mandela gave President Obama the inspiration he needed to embark on a career in leadership.
And it all started right here in L.A. The future president's first political speech urged his school at the time, Occidental College, to divest from South Africa. That it did — years later.
Following banner headlines about Mandela's death today, we tracked down former Occidental dean of students Brigida Knauer, who now lives in Washington State, to talk about those days in the early 1980s.
South African apartheid — white rule and official black oppression — was that generation's Vietnam.
And Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for activism that would years later liberate his people, was an icon for his peaceful resistance and self sacrifice.
Obama later recalled this in a speech as president:
My first act of political activism was when I was at Occidental College …
… I think at that time I didn't necessarily imagine that Nelson Mandela might be released, but I had read his writings and his speeches, and I understood that this was somebody who believed in that basic principle I just talked about — treating people equally — and was willing to sacrifice his life for that belief.
Knauer told us apartheid was a “huge deal” on campus at the time:
Trying to get fairness for citizens who were being denied access and the ability to do things white people were able to do, students took that seriously. The conflict was not to hurt the school but to make political change. I was there. I didn't feel bullied. I was sure tired. But I understood what they were trying to do.
The former dean thinks the future president chose a good time and place to kick off a life as a political figure:
I think President Obama was lucky to be a student at Oxy. In his case it was a good beginning. He happened to be there at a time when he was able to watch history happening. It had to help shape how things happened.
She recalls that about 600 students — a large group for such a small, private school — took part in campus demonstrations that demanded Oxy divest from any funds with ties to South African business.
Obama's first political speech, on Feb. 18, 1981, was described by friend Margot Mifflin in a 2009 op-ed piece in the New York Times:
The protest fell on the kind of sun-bleached winter day you see only in Southern California. The students gathered outside Coons Hall administration building …
… [Obama's] speech was cut short when two students hauled him away in a staged display of white suppression. After the rally, a pair of folk singers harmonized as we wandered off to class, feeling groovy.
Obama recalled the day in the July speech we mentioned earlier:
They started yanking me off the stage, and I was supposed to act like I was trying to break free, except a part of me wasn't acting, I really wanted to stay up there … I had so much left to say.
Nearly 10 years after Obama participated in anti-apartheid demonstrations at Occidental, a movement that also swept other California schools, the Eagle Rock institution divested fully.
It seems rare that a student movement can really help make change. And all the credit certainly goes to Mandela. But Obama's first political campaign was a win. Divestment was accomplished.
“The fact they were able to do it,” Knauer says, “is pretty good.”
[Added at 6:30 p.m.]: Senior faculty member Eric Newhall, an English professor who taught during Obama's days at Occidental, told us be believes the school never did divest, an assertion that seems to be supported by this account.
The New York Times piece we quoted above, and Knauer, however, indicate it did happen.
Newhall says this, though: “I was ashamed that Occidental had not divested.”
The professor was a leader in the faculty's own support for divestment. He says:
Mandela was an iconic larger, than life. He was an inspiration to everyone committed to the anti-apartheid movement.
Newhall recalls that Obama didn't help start the anti-apartheid movement on campus — it had already started by the time the future president arrived in 1979 — but that he quickly emerged as a core leader.
My sense was he had the respect of his peers. They were impressed. He was one of four or five students who were influential in that movement. He became one of the students who was driving that conversation.
But Newhall disputes the conclusion that Obama's first political fight eventually ended in victory, at least as far as Occidental's own role in South African investment goes.
“Obama was not effective,” he said. “We all did not get the job done.”