The Commercial Appeal

Rep. Steve Cohen visits jail where apartheid foe Nelson Mandela was held.

- By Michael Collins

WASHINGTON — In a journey filled with poignant moments, the one that stood out most for U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen was a salute.

It happened as the Memphis Democrat and a small group of congressio­nal lawmakers were about to enter the South African prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years behind bars. Their guide was Ahmed Kathrada, an anti-apartheid activist who was confined with Mandela at the Robben Island penitentia­ry, just off the coast of Cape Town.

As Kathrada and the Americans approached, the guard on duty saluted the former prisoner and handed him the keys to Mandela’s cell.

For Cohen, that show of respect to a man who had once been jailed by his own government over his political views spoke volumes about how far the world has come on the issues of race and equality.

“There was a lot to absorb and think about,” Cohen said. “It made a big impact on me.”

Cohen made the trip to South Africa a couple of weeks ago with seven other members of Congress involved in civil-rights issues. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who led the delegation, invited Cohen because he had authored legislatio­n that formally apologized for slavery and the Jim Crow laws that followed.

The trip aimed to mark the 50th anniversar­y of then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s “Day of Affirmatio­n” speech at the University of Cape Town. The speech, delivered June 6, 1966 to students fighting the racial segregatio­n of South African universiti­es, compared racial inequality and prejudice in the United States and South Africa.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and ... those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance,” Kennedy famous-

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