Thirty Years Ago, Nelson Mandela Visited Detroit

Those who were there at Tiger Stadium in the summer of 1990 will never forget the civil rights icon’s time in the Motor City.

On June 28th, 1990, only months after being released from spending nearly three decades in prison, Nelson Mandela arrived in Detroit for his first and only visit to the Motor City (or as he called it, Motor Town.)

Thousands at Tiger Stadium greeted the civil rights icon, along with performances by Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and a 2,000 person choir organized by Bishop Edgar Vann.

“I would hope that this time, this hallmark, this historic moment in the life of the city of Detroit, with Nelson Mandela coming to America and coming to Detroit, will never be forgotten.” — Bishop Edgar Vann

It was part of a whirlwind 11 city North American tour where Mandela pushed for corporate and government sanctions to pressure South Africa to end apartheid. 

Listen: Two organizers remember Mandela’s visit to the Motor City.

“Detroit was one of the key cities that was involved in the anti-apartheid movement,” says Reverend Wendell Anthony, President of Detroit’s NAACP. “We were concerned about divesting with companies like General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, the University of Michigan.” 

Anthony and Vann were integral figures in organizing Mandela’s historic visit to Detroit. 

“I had about three weeks to put a huge choir together,” says Vann. He says he wanted to unite singers from the suburbs and the city, and when he put the call out for performers, more than a thousand showed up for a rehearsal on a hot summer day at a church on Woodward Ave. He says a “melodious sound” echoed down Woodward and the rehearsal, captured by the local news, brought even more choir members to Vann.

“We ended up with 2,000 choir members,” Vann says. “I named the choir ‘The Voices of Freedom,’ and we were ready [in time] for the celebration at Tiger Stadium.” 

Looking back 30 years on, Vann says in light of his lifelong work in civil rights activism, being part of bringing Mandela to Detroit is an honor that’s made an indelible impression on him. 

The visit deeply affected Anthony as well. “I remember the fact that I was privileged and blessed to be able to touch, to see, to feel, someone who was an icon, almost a supernatural kind of individual,” he says. 

Metro Times writer Dave Mesrey took a deep look into how Mandela’s message of hope lives on after that night in the summer of 1990. 

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  • Amanda LeClaire
    Amanda LeClaire is an award-winning host and producer of CultureShift on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. She’s a founding producer of WDET’s flagship news talk show Detroit Today, and a former host/reporter for Arizona Public Media. Amanda is also an artist, certified intuitive and energy healer, and professional tarot reader.