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Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa and Nobel Peace prize winner, has died at the age of 95.  Mandela had been in failing health recently and was taken to a hospital on June 8 for what the government said was a recurring lung infection.

He is being remembered as one of the world’s most revered statesmen who led the struggle to replace the racist apartheid regime of South Africa with a multi-racial democracy.  Jailed for 27 years, he emerged in 1990 to become the country’s first black president four years later and to play a leading role in the drive for peace in other spheres of conflict.

Beginning a trip to Africa, President Obama said he was inspired as a law school student in the early 1990s to see Mandela step forward after decades of imprisonment to help deliver democracy in a spirit of reconciliation with his former captors.  ”It gave me a sense of what is possible in the world when righteous people, when people of good will, work together on behalf of a larger cause,” said Obama, who described Mandela as a personal hero.

As a young man Mandela joined the ANC (African National Congress) and fought apartheid.  He was eventually arrested and charged with attempting to overthrow the government. During his trial Mandela expressed his beliefs about democracy, freedom and equality.

Mandela said, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

In 1964 he was sentenced to life in prison. Mandela said, “In prison, you come face to face with time. There is nothing more terrifying.”

Bowing to international pressure in 1990, South African President F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and released Mandela from prison.  Three years later, Mandela and de Klerk were both awarded the Nobel Peace prize for their efforts to dismantle the country’s apartheid system.  Just five months later and for the first time in South Africa’s history, all races voted in democratic elections and Mandela was overwhelmingly elected president.

In 1999, Mandela came to Houston to deliver his views on world affairs during a speech at Rice University’s James Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The Rev. Bill Lawson, pastor emeritus of Houston’s Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, traveled to South Africa and had an opportunity to meet Mandela.  He says he was struck by Mandela’s inner strength which he believes allowed him to survive being imprisoned for fighting white minority rule.

“His value system seems to have carried him through all that prison time and then brought him to a place where he could see himself president of an entire nation rather than just a black South African,” Lawson said.

Former Houston mayor Lee Brown met Mandela when the South African leader made his first visit to the United States.  ”I look at Nelson Mandela as one of my heroes,” Brown said.

Brown says Mandela’s personal sacrifice during the anti-apartheid struggle, including the 27 years he spent imprisoned fighting for justice will always be an inspiration to millions of people around the world.

“So his contribution not only to South Africa, but also to the entire world is one that will be remembered in the history books forever,” Brown added. “He, in my estimation, is one of the great men of our times.”