Flags across Vermont and the country are at half staff and will remain so through Monday in honor of Nelson Mandela. The 95-year-old passed away at his home in Johannesburg South Africa Thursday.
His fight against institutional racism led to his imprisonment in 1964. The battle reached the University of Vermont campus in the late 70's and continued through the early 90's.
"He was definitely an inspiration," said Charley MacMartin, who along with fellow student protesters, ultimately prevailed in convincing trustees not to invest in companies that did business in South Africa. "I and other people at UVM felt very fortunate to be a part of that," MacMartin said. "I think we felt like we had played a very small role in a very successful movement."
Then-Burlington mayor and current U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders recalls chants ringing through the city at that time. "'Free Mandela, Free Mandela,' and here in Burlington we divested I think $1.8 million of city pension funds from companies who were doing business in South Africa," Sanders said.
South Africa's government released Mandela in 1990. Sen. Sanders attended his presidential inauguration four years later. Mandela spent 26 years behind bars, but back-breaking manual labor did not break his political will. Vermont's Independent Senator says that taught him a powerful lesson. "One word -- determination. If there's one word you'd ascribe to Mandela it is unbelievable determination," Sanders said.
MacMartin says the lessons he and his peers learned -- political success itself is not a goal. "But to try to think about how that political success can translate into a better future. And a lot of people who were involved in the anti-apartheid movement at UVM were inspired to go on and do other things," he said.
The man known as Mandiba - or "father" - is gone, but his example will continue to guide those in search of peace and equality. Senator Sanders say the loss of Mandela is saddening, but given his age, the mourning period should also be a time to celebrate all that he accomplished with his life.