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Imagine for a second that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not assassinated in 1968 but was instead jailed by the federal government for treason.

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With the United States coming apart at the seams with open racial conflict between the races, a crumbling economy, and stiff international economic sanctions at play, imagine that Dr. King won release from prison 27 years later.

It would be 1995, and the United States turned to King, a recently released prisoner in fair health, to help reverse America’s path toward the brink of self-destruction.

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Implausible, right? Could never happen.

But it did in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela walked from a jail cell to lead a country from ruination in a story that, upon reflection, seems too remarkable to be true. Mandela combined the heroism and selflessness of King, the leadership skills of George Washington, and the ability to unite a nation of Abraham Lincoln.

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Reporting the story of South Africa’s first shaky steps to freedom and watching a genuine hero assume leadership leaves me shaking my head in disbelief to this day. 

When I spent a month in South Africa reporting on Mandela’s election for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, I, like many of my colleagues, was swept up with the hopes that Mandela could weave his fractured country into a united nation.

But few of us would have bet a nickel that the grand experiment would prove successful.

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For years, agents of the South African government and their buddies in the Ronald Reagan White House were putting out word that Mandela had lost it mentally and that bitterness over his years of imprisonment had caused the old man to snap.

It was only the weight of international sanctions and desperation on the part of the White apartheid government that forced White leaders to partner with Mandela and actually allow him to lead, we were told by sources.

But a strange thing happened on Mandela’s walk to freedom: he carried his country along for the ride.

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Mandela used the sheer strength of his personality, sharpened in the years of armed struggle before his imprisonment, to will his country to a new future.

With his almost squeaky voice and warm smile, Mandela presented the air of a kind grandfather. But people in the room with Mandela during the reported tense negotiations say that the kindly grandfather could turn into the most fearsome adversary imagined in a second.

I remember one White government official telling me he felt like his insides had been ripped out for daring to politely challenge a point Mandela made during a negotiation session.

Watch Nelson Mandela Speak At Wembley Stadium In London (April 16, 1990):

Mandela used that same strength with his fellow members of the Black liberation struggle who said he was doing too much to assuage White fears that a Black-run, post-election South Africa would become a killing field for Whites.

When challenged in meetings by Black comrades about the sacrifices they made for the struggle, Mandela would reply that he gave up 27 years of his life. He would then ask who gave up more.

Silence would come over the room.

There are many aspects of Mandela’s story that are simply too good to be true.

But one thing is certain: there will never be another Nelson Mandela.

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