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Topics in History: Nelson Mandela

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Homeschool Unit Study: Learn more about civil rights champion Nelson Mandela

It’s been more than two decades since Nelson Mandela was inaugurated president of South Africa, marking the end of that country’s racially charged apartheid program. Even after witnessing some of the atrocities against black Africans and spending 27 years imprisoned for treason by the South African government, Mandela never wavered from his stance of peaceful resistance and worked to heal the wounds of apartheid on both sides. “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others,” Mandela famously said, a belief that informed his political life in South Africa and beyond.

10 ways to get to know Nelson Mandela

Let him introduce himself. Chris van Wyk adapted Mandela’s powerful autobiography Long Walk to Freedom to be more accessible to younger readers, but don’t worry—his simplified version packs plenty of punch.

Get the comic book version. ArtisanCam uses a combination of comic books, audio files, and video to tell the story of Mandela’s life.

Find your rhythm. NPR put together an awesome playlist of the songs Mandela would have grown up listening to in South Africa mixed with the songs artists around the world performed to support him.

Read his words. The New York Times’ Voice of Mandela includes a great archive of some of Mandela’s best-known speeches

Watch him evolve. Mandela’s first on-camera interview—conducted before his imprisonment—is especially interesting because he’s clearly conflicted about whether the peaceful methods he believes in will be enough to effect real change in South Africa.

Celebrate his achievements. Maya Angelou’s powerful tribute poem compares Mandela to the Biblical David, battling the Goliath of apartheid with little more than a slingshot and winning with “his stupendous heart intact / His gargantuan will / Hale and hearty.”

Watch his Hollywood moments. Morgan Freeman plays the new South African president in Invictus, a film about Mandela’s attempts to reunite his country through a rugby World Cup victory. Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom covers the story of Mandela’s life from village schoolboy to renowned leader, with Idris Elba in the title role.

Understand his context. It’s easy to appreciate Mandela’s work, but to really understand its significance, you need to understand South African politics and history. No book better captures that—from the days of the dinosaurs to the formation of the gold reefs to modern day politics—than the excellent Dinosaurs, Diamonds, and Democracy.

Be in the moment. Mandela’s release from prison essentially changed everything about life in South Africa. The details in this well-reported article bring that day to vivid life.

Take a walk on the dark side. Young and very sensitive kids should not watch Facing the Truth with Bill Moyers, an intense and heart-wrenching look at the real-life violence of apartheid. But older students who can handle it will get a clear look at the dark side of segregation and racism.