President Barack Obama paid somber tribute to Nelson Mandela Thursday, celebrating the late South African leader’s “fierce dignity and unbending will” and unquenchable thirst for justice.
“For now, let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived — a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice,” Obama said in the White House briefing room.
“He achieved more than could be expected of any man. Today he's gone home, and we've lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth,” Obama said. “He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages.”
Mandela, who was 95, died from complications of a recurring lung infection.
"His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings — and countries — can change for the better," Obama said.
The president also recalled the personal connection he felt to Mandela, and the antiapartheid campaign that fueled the young American's political passions.
"I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life. My very first political action — the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics — was a protest against apartheid. I would study his words and his writings," Obama said. "The day he was released from prison it gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they're guided by their hopes and not by their fears. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set. And so long as I live, I will do what I can to learn from him."
In his 1995 autobiographical “Dreams From My Father,” Obama had described Mandela as something of an idealized father-figure — inspiring him and filling the void of his absent Kenya-born parent.
"It was into my father's image, the black man, son of Africa, that I'd packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela," he wrote. The two men met in 2005, when Mandela visited Washington, and Obama was a junior senator.