I have been kissed by history. That is precisely how I felt when Nelson Mandela publicly embraced me during his visit to the Miami area as he made his “victory tour” of America in June 1990.
As I sat 12 rows back on the stage during Mandela’s speech to 6,000 members of the AFSCME trade union, I had no thought that I would meet the great man. But, when I was introduced as the leader of the South Florida Coalition for a Free South Africa, Mandela motioned for me to come to him.
Security tried to block me but I quickly knocked their hands away and rushed to the front of the stage.
As I reached out my hand to shake his, Mandela hugged me and whispered in my ear, “Comrade Smith, thank you for standing with the people of South Africa during the darkest days of our struggle against our oppressors.”
At that moment, I felt like my feet were not touching the floor and I was so proud to be a vessel through which Mandela thanked the thousands of South Floridians who supported a free and democratic South Africa and the release of all political prisoners.
During that same visit to the United States, Mandela received a hero’s welcome at the White House, in Congress, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violence and in several major cities across America.
But, in the Miami area, Nelson Mandela was snubbed, criticized and denigrated by local politicians for his refusal to denounce leaders who had supported his fight against apartheid.
Mandela refused to be ungrateful to those who helped him free South Africa when the United States and other powerful nations supported the oppressors.
Immediately, blacks from around the country began calling and asking, “What in the world is wrong with the politicians in Miami?” They said if Nelson Mandela was not welcome in Miami, then they did not feel welcome in Miami. That planted the seed which grew into a boycott of the Greater Miami tourism industry.
First, a boycott would provide an effective way for the Black community to fight back against this hurtful disrespect, while providing a non-violent alternative to the three violent riots of the 1980s. For that reason, we called our boycott “The Quiet Riot.”
Second, a boycott is the kind of protest that would allow for the participation of all who wanted to take action against this hurtful act of disrespect to our hero.
Third, a boycott of Miami’s tourism industry gave us leverage because blacks were responsible for 20 percent of the tourism dollars in Miami each year, about $1 billion.
The boycott demanded an apology for snubbing Mandela, meeting 20 specific economic goals in the tourism industry, single-member voting districts for county, city and school board elections and fair treatment of Haitian refugees.
I am so proud that I was surrounded by women and men of high intellect, impeccable integrity and unflinching courage.
They included leaders such as Marilyn Holifield, Thomasina Williams, Cynthia Everett, Linda Kelly Kearson, Larry Handfield, Cynthia Johnson Stacks, Carolyn Howard, Lisa Hogan Wynn, Bishop Victor T. Curry, Adora Nweze, Jesse J. McCrary, David Honig and Haneef Hamidullah, to name a few.
The Boycott Miami campaign was so successful that not one black organization booked a convention in Miami for three years. It lasted for 1,000 days and caused the loss of more than $100 million in tourism business.
The boycott resulted in the development of the first black-owned high-end convention hotel, on the ocean, on South Beach; scholarships for black students in perpetuity at Florida International University’s renown hospitality management program; creation of the Black Executive forum; launching of the In-Roads/MIAMI program; integration of the union waiter and bartender rolls; placing $3 million in deposits in Miami’s only black-owned bank; hundreds of hospitality management jobs; and millions of tourism dollars being spent with black-owned businesses.
The campaign, by every objective measure, was the most successful boycott in America since the famous Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. We demanded and got respect for black leaders, respect for black people and respect for our hard-earned dollars.
Every government entity that disrespected Nelson Mandela issued an apology before the boycott was lifted. Mandela was snubbed because people felt that the black community was impotent to do anything about it.
We demonstrated that our dignity was not negotiable and we were prepared to fight as hard and as long as necessary to defend it.
Hopefully, the black community will never be disrespected like this again. Just like Nelson Mandela, we will forgive those who wronged us, not to release them from their guilt but to free ourselves.
As we celebrate the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela upon his death, I now realize for the first time that his effect on my life was not unique because, as a result of Nelson Mandela’s visit, all of Miami was kissed by history.
H.T. Smith is a Miami attorney and professor at Florida International University.