Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. never met, but they shared a similar plight.
They both lived exceptional lives under duress. Both ignited movements for social justice and civil rights — Mandela against apartheid in South Africa and King against the lasting legacy of slavery in the United States.
Penelope Andrews, the dean of Albany Law School and a South African native, highlighted the similarities between their philosophies as she spoke during the Schenectady Human Rights Commission’s celebration of King’s life Sunday afternoon. Andrews, who grew up under apartheid and later met Mandela, views both men as pioneers who dedicated their lives to improving the human condition.
“Both men really sought to bring out the best in what we are as human beings,” she said during the service at the First United Methodist Church. “None of us could ever dream what these two men left behind.”
Andrews, the first female president of Albany Law, spoke of Mandela and King as having parallel commitments to ending racism and eradicating poverty. She also cited their similar messages of reconciliation and devotion to the rule of law — how both used non-violent resistance to foment change.
“In the midst of violence, in the midst of hatred, and in some instances, real terror, he insisted non-violence be his legacy,” she said of King.
Andrews said King’s legacy was, in some respects, something that drew her to the United States. After years of living in a divided society, King’s message of civil rights and equality was something that appealed to her as a young law student.
“I knew about Martin Luther King,” she said. “I knew about the civil rights struggle in this country and it was a beacon of hope for me and similarly situated people.”
Angelica Morris, the executive director of the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission, said the community has made great strides since King rose to lead the civil rights movement. But she said there are plenty of other social injustices that need addressing today — everything from poverty to the crime that continues to envelope the lives of inner-city youth.
“In the words of Dr. King, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ ” she said. “Making wrong things right is justice. It’s our responsibility to act on his words today.”
Prior to the service, the commission played King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he delivered in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, in which he called for unity and non-violent protest. The next day, he was struck and killed by a bullet as he stood on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
King, who would have turned 85 last week, continues to inspire, Morris said. She urged the crowd of more than 100 people attending the service to use his memory for inspiration to correct injustice.
“Today is a day to be thankful, inspired and empowered,” she said.
The event also served to offer recognition to several of the city’s black leaders. Brian Wright, the commission’s now-retired executive director, was presented with a citation from the Schenectady County Legislature for his 17 years of service.
“This was a very unique job for me,” he said during the service. “It’s a job that changes from day to day and from situation to situation. What never changes is that there’s always someone out there who needs help.”
Also recognized was Quentin Bullock, the outgoing president of Schenectady County Community College. Morris said Bullock, who is leaving his position after four and a half years to oversee the Community College of Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania, serves as an inspiration for her and others in the community.
“You’ve been a role model to all the students that crossed your path here,” she said. “You’ve been a role model to me.”