Barack Obama Celebrates "Young at Heart" Nelson Mandela on 100th Birthday

Mandela 100th anniversary - Publicity - H 2019
Mandela 100 USA/Purplepplmedia

The former U.S. president, introduced by Alfre Woodard, commended the former South African leader's hope and lack of cynicism at the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture Saturday night.

While guests at Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner may have struggled to find someone to take their plus-one invites for this year's "nerd prom," across town at the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture, where President Obama was headlining a gala honoring the legacy of Nelson Mandela, it was standing room only.

Alfre Woodard emceed the gala, which was the culminating event in a celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Mandela’s birth and the 25th anniversary of the end of apartheid. The event marked the end of a yearlong campaign from Mandela’s four legacy foundations in the U.S. (Nelson Mandela Foundation, Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital and Mandela Rhodes Foundation).

In her welcome to the black-tie crowd, the Oscar-nominated actress alternately referred to Mandela as Madiba, which the Nelson Family Foundation explains is a sign of respect. "How blessed we are to have lived in the time of Mandela," Woodard said. "How charged we are to carry his work forward. Madiba was my North Star. His life remains a guiding light, urging us to keep standing up for equality, keep insisting on justice and keep practicing mercy."

Woodard welcomed to the stage South African social change innovator and Obama Foundation fellow Lesley Williams for a conversation with activist and former first lady of South Africa Graca Machel (Machel was married to Mandela from 1998 until his death in 2013) and the 44th President of the United States.

"Now, can we get a little ululation going for our beloved President Barack Obama?" urged Woodard, accurately reading her audience. "Like Nelson Mandela before him, Barack Obama is a maker of history…. And, like Madiba, this skilled organizer of communities and nations, this leading constitutional scholar and lucid, lyrical writer, did not simply finish his term as president and go quietly into a leisurely life of retirement. Barack Obama is a senior statesman of the highest caliber. He continues working tirelessly through the Obama Foundation to better our world." While she refused to call anyone out by name, Woodard didn’t shy away from comparisons with the current administration, saying of Obama, "Thank God he judiciously weighs in on the most urgent issues of our day, reminding us of what leadership looks like when a principled, ingenious person takes the high road of truth and service," to thunderous applause.

"On a personal note," Woodard continued, "I wanted to say to my president that every single day I miss having you and First Lady Michele Obama, as well as your brilliant daughters, in the White House … I miss having your wisdom, your vision and empathy at the political helm of this nation, yet I am so grateful to have you active on the world stage, exemplifying the best of humanity," which brought the nearly 500 guests to their feet.

In his conversation with Williams and Machel (whom he referred to as "one of the best people I know, across the board"), Obama expressed his gratitude and shared his wisdom:

“There is always a struggle between hope and fear — between the world as it is and how we'd like it to be. And during times of tumult and disruption — whether it's technological, economic, information, migration — the danger of us resorting to fear to organize ourselves, falling back on tribe, race, ethnicity, sectarian lines, that always becomes strong."

"The good news is that fear is typically the province of the old, and hope is the province of the young," he continued to more applause. "There are occasional exceptions, like Madiba, who stayed young at heart throughout [his] life, never succumbed to cynicism, and always believed in the possibility of human connection, mutual understanding and rational thought, all of which could contribute to a society that works for everyone."

On leadership, Obama offered that "the first thing to do if you want to change the world is shut up and listen. We always assume we know best, but before you can actually lead people, you need to know, what do they feel, where are they coming from, what’s their perspective, what’s their story…. We like to build up barriers to prevent us from hearing things that may force us to reexamine who we are and what our attitudes are. Letting go of fear is important, and I think leaders who feed fear typically also are ones who avoid facts."

The gala also included appearances from Archbishop Desmond Tutu's daughter, Rev. Canon Nontombi Naomi Tutu, who blessed the food; Black Panther actor Atandwa Kani, who read excerpts from Mandela's letters to his family from prison; Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, who read Maya Angelou's poem "Your Day Is Done"; and a performance by the Dave Matthews Band, whose lead singer was born in South Africa.