I received your letter and wanted to respond now, after hearing of the passing of Nelson Mandela. You have been in prison so many years, Malcolm. You know I have kept your letters and the total fills many file folders. I’ve shared parts of your letters with students at Wartburg over the years and they have written to you. I know you have kept their letters, except for when you were moved to a different prison on a moment’s notice. Your recent words ring true, “Please don’t despair. We are linked in Spirit so at times words understood need not be spoken.”
Yes, I see from the change of return address that you have been moved once again, and this time even further from your family, 4 ½ hours from Detroit: “It seems like the closer I get to the door and the more good I try to do the worse things get for me.” Malcolm, I remind you of what you have done through the years while in prison. You counsel younger men coming in, you lead Bible study, proclaiming and teaching the Word, you help men with family problems and make sure they have what they need. I have often thought of you as my Apostle Paul in prison. I rejoiced with you that in the past year you were able to become a leader in a program that helps men find new lives of peace and purpose once they leave prison. And, yes, I can just see you intervening on behalf of the young man to right the wrong done to him. I’m glad you were successful with the prison administration. And I agree that they may have been fearful of you having that much influence and that may have resulted in your being transferred.
I hear your words, Malcolm: “I am tired, Norma. I’m not about to quit, but I am tired.” Don’t quit, Malcolm. Even though I live so far away now in Dubuque, I am encouraged by your words, “I still seek opportunities to do what I do and be who I am. I am able to teach some classes and assist men with getting their lives together.” Take courage, Malcolm. Know that you are not alone, even though prison walls and distance separate us. You say that my words comfort you, Malcolm, but it is yours that strengthen me as you write, “My trust is in the God of Justice and grace and love and compassion and hope. It is because of this compassion that we are not consumed.”
Nelson Mandela fought apartheid in South Africa and was imprisoned for it, coming out 27 years later to continue the struggle and then become president of his country. He is said to have been the greatest leader of the second half of the 20th century. It would be easy to not see the man behind the icon. Those 27 years in prison took so much from him during the prime of his life. You, more than I, Malcolm, know that. The world watched as he came out of prison, not knowing what he would look like, not seeing even a picture, not knowing which direction he would turn and lead. And then we saw: towards “Truth and Reconciliation” which kept that country from being torn apart in violence and civil war after apartheid was finally ended. And you, Malcolm, have participated in your own “truth and reconciliation” initiatives in prison.
President Obama described Mandela as, “one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages. Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa and moved all of us. His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings and countries can change for the better.”
Malcolm, we know that South Africa continues to face its own struggles and that the United States is not a post-racial society, not when with “The New Jim Crow” such a large percentage of black men are incarcerated. And the gap between rich and poor grows. Mandela worked to free and reconcile oppressed and oppressor. We aren’t there yet, are we Malcolm? But, here we are, over 40 years after our families, one white and one black, lived around the block from each other in Detroit. Nothing can separate us in Christ Jesus. You closed your letter with, “Give my love to the rest of the family. Take care of yourself and make sure you get some rest.” I will. And, Malcolm, I received the picture your mom sent of you, Greg and her when they visited you last month. I’m glad they could make it that far. You look good. The years in prison can’t take that away. Keep on keeping on. God’s strength.