Part of complete coverage from
From one first black president to another
December 10, 2013 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
- Julian Zelizer: Obama and Mandela: The two first black presidents of their nations
- Mandela a big influence on Obama, who said, "He makes me want to be a better man"
- Zelizer: Obama's election was transformational despite political vitriol since then
- Problems persist, he says, but civil rights have come far in U.S. and South Africa
Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."
(CNN) -- As President Barack Obama made his impassioned speech at Nelson Mandela's funeral at a soccer stadium in Soweto, the poverty-stricken Johannesburg township that was a stronghold of support for the anti-apartheid struggle, he was standing at the procession of one of the people who had the greatest impact on his life. Mandela shaped his career.
"Over 30 years ago, while still a student," the president said, "I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles in this beautiful land. It stirred something in me. And while I will always fall short of Madiba's example, he makes me want to be a better man."
Obama praised what this leader had accomplished for racial equality and in bringing down the apartheid regime.
The speech, the first African-American president in the United States speaking at the funeral of the first black president of South Africa, is important in that it brings us back to the transformational nature of Obama, a basic fact that has been lost in all the partisan tumult and vitriol of the last few years.
Since he entered office, the very moment that brought so many Americans to tears, everything quickly returned to politics as usual. Heated debates unfolded about his legislative agenda, and the underlying significance of his election in terms of the nation's racial history faded for too many Americans.
While observers will be interpreting the meaning of each word in Obama's speech through the prism of domestic politics, examining each handshake with foreign leaders to glean the implications for international policy, the speech itself and Obama standing in Mandela's shadow should be powerful reminders of the progress that we have made in race relations.
World leaders celebrate Mandela's legacy
Four presidents head to Mandela funeral
Obamas, Bushes arrive in South Africa
Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were part of a global struggle for equality in the 1950s and 1960s that rocked societies that were built on the foundation of racial inequality. While civil rights leaders in the United States and freedom fighters in South Africa took different paths and faced different challenges, their goals were similar.
In South Africa, Mandela would eventually help to bring down the apartheid regime and dismantle a brutal system of white rule. Within the United States, the civil rights movement ended legalized racial segregation and strengthened the ability of the federal government -- until this year -- to protect African-American voting rights. The election of an African-American president was also part of these long-term accomplishments, bringing down another barrier in political leadership that once seemed unmovable.
The civil rights accomplishments were incomplete. Many problems facing African-Americans still persist and have sometimes been ignored by policymakers. The disproportionate number of African-Americans in U.S. prisons remains a blight on the nation's record. The devastating conditions facing certain African-Americans living in the inner city are part of another massive problem that needs to be repaired. Racism, moreover, has reared its head in recent years among some of Obama's detractors.
But Obama's speech is a healthy and much needed reminder about what took place in 2008 and what he will mean in the American history textbook for decades to come.
Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.
Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.
Today's five most popular stories
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?