Walking with Mandela
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Walking with Mandela

Former cub reporter remembers her meeting with the South African giant

I walked with Nelson Mandela.

The late, great South African leader made an historic visit to Detroit in June 1990, just a few weeks after I started a summer reporting internship at the Detroit News. Mandela’s visit to Detroit, a mere three months after his release from 27 years of imprisonment, was part of an eight-city fundraising tour for the African National Congress, the South African political party with which Mandela was affiliated.

For the 18 hours that Mandela was in Detroit, from June 28 to June 29, he charmed Motor City – which he referred to as “Motortown” – galvanized the community, and, in this city of racial strife, brought black and white together, at least for this happening.

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Heidi Mae Bratt recalls “Mandela mania” in Detroit.

The newspapers, the television stations, and other media outlets brought out their big guns for this big story, assembling teams of coverage for every stop of Mandela’s less-than-day-long swing through Detroit.

From Mandela’s arrival at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, where he was greeted by the mayor, the governor, union leaders, and the civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, to his stop at the Ford Motor Dearborn assembly plant, where he inspired auto workers, to the rousing nighttime rally attended by 50,000 people at Tiger Stadium, for which they paid from $10 to $10,000, the city was crackling with Mandela mania.

Later than night, after the rally, Mandela and his wife, Winnie, returned to their hotel, the Westin Hotel in Detroit’s downtown Renaissance Center. They reportedly were staying in a $1,200 suite on the 69th floor.

My assignment? The newbie, the summer intern from New York, me, I was assigned to head over to the Westin at 10 p.m. and stay there the whole night on a “death watch.” This less-than-delicate term, as used in the old-time newsrooms, simply meant that you had to be on hand in case anything major happened. I was just a body.

The Detroit News and our rival newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, had a joint operating agreement, a business arrangement, which meant that the weekend paper was shared: the Free Press took over the news section on Saturday and the News did the same on Sunday. So it was okay for me to be there. Because if anything happened, it was not the News’ news to report.

Needless to say, I was very anxious about the assignment. I went to the Westin, just a few blocks away from our newsroom on W. Lafayette Boulevard, and parked myself in the lobby. Waiting.

The city editor told me there was a room at the Westin for me, and I may have gone upstairs just to see what it looked like.

I sat downstairs, notebook in hand, just making sure that I didn’t miss anything. Hours went by. More hours went by. I was getting sleepy, but I was nervous even to go to the bathroom for fear of missing Mandela, who we knew took a morning constitutional, a brisk walk for exercise every morning.

The staff in the hotel lobby was amused by me.

Then shortly after dawn, at a little after 6 a.m., the elevator doors flung open, and a tall, imposing man, wearing a Detroit Pistons cap and a bright blue jacket, a gift given to him by basketball stars Isiah Thomas and John Salley the night before, emerged and started his brisk, nearly 50 minute morning walk.

The phalanx of media aroused by his rapid movement followed him en masse, with me very close to the South African leader. He walked like someone who spent a lot of time walking, striding at military pace, with his hands curled a bit and swinging slightly at his side.

He greeted passersby, waving and walking along the edge of the Detroit River. He was also wearing black sweatpants and loafers. It was hard for me to keep pace as he strode west along the riverfront.

At one point, his security agent asked the reporters to identify the spot. It was Hart Plaza. The highlight of the walk was when a parking lot attendant who worked behind the Renaissance Center called out to Mandela for an autograph. The man, Bobby Carter, got it. “To Bobby Carter, with compliments and best wishes, Nelson Mandela,” Mandela wrote.

Mandela then picked up the pace and continued on his way back to the hotel.

The next day, on Saturday, the Detroit Free Press published a front-page story about Mandela and a picture of that walk. There I was, standing to his right.

On that walk, Mandela logged nearly two miles.

My story goes even longer.

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