President Obama: 'He No Longer Belongs To Us -- He Belongs To The Ages'

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – Former South African President Nelson Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95.

Mandela had been battling a recurring lung infection.

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“We’ve lost our greatest son,” South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, said.

After 27 years in prison, Mandela walked to freedom on Feb. 11, 1990. Against all odds, the leader of a rebellion against South Africa’s white apartheid government became the leader of national unity.  Mandela’s decades-long rebellion transformed him from a convicted traitor into a freedom fighter and international hero, CBS 2’s Dana Tyler reported.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” Mandela once 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.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Nelson Mandela Through The Years

President Barack Obama acknowledged Mandela’s struggle in his statement to the nation.

“He achieved more than could be expected of any man,” Obama said. “Today, he has gone home. And we have lost 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.”

Fighting For Change

Mandela was born in 1918 into a privileged family. He supported nonviolence to bring about change. He became a lawyer and opened the first South African law firm to defend blacks who were forced from their land. But in 1960, Mandela turned militant when 69 black protesters were massacred.

“There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and nonviolence against a government whose reply is only savage attacks,” Mandela said.

Mandela lived up to his tribal name, “Troublemaker,” repeatedly challenging authority. He was convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government and sentenced to life in prison on South Africa’s infamous Robben Island. He was cut off from the outside world, but Mandela’s message and his movement endured. His wife, Winnie, became his unofficial ambassador.

Finally, at age 71, Nelson Mandela was freed, unconditionally.

The New York ‘Yankee’

Mandela became a larger-than-life figure in his country and abroad. Four months after being released, his first trip to the United States started in New York City, touching the Big Apple’s core with emotion and cheers.

He got a classic New York welcome, including a ticker-tape parade up the “Canyon of Heroes.”

I’m a Yankee,” he declared.

Former Mayor David Dinkins, who escorted Mandela in the parade, told WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond you could feel the love from the city as he waved to the crowds from the Canyon of Heroes up to Harlem.

“And I don’t mean just in Harlem, but I mean the Upper East Side, Midtown Manhattan, everywhere,” said the former mayor. “They turned out to see this amazing human being.

“With his humility and dignity, what an inspiration he was to everyone.”

A man holds up candles to a mural in Harlem depicting former South African President Nelson Mandela on Dec. 5, 2013. (credit: Getty Images)

A man holds up candles to a mural in Harlem depicting former South African President Nelson Mandela on Dec. 5, 2013. (credit: Getty Images)

For many kids in New York at the time, the brush with a legend was life-changing.

“To see someone like that come a car away from you — I’ve never seen Martin (Luther King Jr.), I’ve never seen (John F.) Kennedy, I’ve never seen Malcolm (X) or any of those guys, but when you’re looking at him, it’s like you saw them,” said Michael Forde, of Harlem.

Reaction From Local Leaders

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday that the world “lost one of the most transformative and influential figures in modern history.”

“Nelson Mandela was a global icon who broke the back of apartheid in South Africa and inspired generations of people around the world with his spirit of resolve and reconciliation,” Bloomberg said. “The ticker-tape parade Mayor Dinkins organized for him in 1990 was a great moment for our city, and his visit here in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 helped give our city strength and hope — for which we will be forever grateful.

“When I presented Nelson Mandela with the Key to the City in 2005, he spoke passionately about the work of his foundation and his ongoing efforts to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic and many other important issues,” the mayor added. “He devoted his life to building a more just, equal and compassionate world, and we are all better for it. On behalf of the people of the City of New York, I offer my sincere condolences to the Mandela family and the people of South Africa. At my direction, flags at City Hall will be lowered to half-staff in his honor.”

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio said in a statement he remembered listening to Mandela in Yankee Stadium during his 1990 visit.

“We came to believe in his fight for justice and democracy as if it were our own,” de Blasio said.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said flags on state government buildings will also be flown at half-staff Friday in honor of Mandela.

“Nelson Mandela refused to accept injustice, fought relentlessly for what was right and showed that a dedicated person of courage actually can change the course of history,” Cuomo said. “His struggle to end racism, poverty and inequality began with his fight against apartheid, continued through his service as the first black president of South Africa and is now passed on for the world to continue. We will not soon see again, nor should we ever forget, the profound example of humanity that Nelson Mandela embodied. While President Mandela is no longer with us, here in New York and all around the globe, his legacy lives on. His family and friends and the people of South Africa are in my thoughts and prayers along with those of all New Yorkers.”

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Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted Thursday: “Nelson Mandela was a champion for justice & human dignity, with unmatched grace. I’ll remember him as Madiba, truly an unconquerable soul.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan remembered Mandela as a man who left Pope John Paul II in awe.

“Nelson Mandela was a hero to the world,” Mandela said. “His bravery in defending human rights against the great evil of apartheid made him a symbol of courage and dignity, as well as an inspiration to people everywhere. As Blessed Pope John Paul II noted during his visit to South Africa in 1995, Nelson Mandela was for many years, ‘a silent and suffering witness of your people’s yearning for true liberation,’ who, as president of South Africa, had to then ‘shoulder the burden of inspiring and challenging everyone to succeed in the task of national reconciliation and reconstruction.’ In succeeding in these crucial and difficult tasks, Nelson Mandela truly made the world a better place. May he rest in peace.”

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said Mandela commanded respect with his mere presence.

“I have long thought of Nelson Mandela to be the epitome of sainthood,” Rangel said. “He was a visionary and selfless leader, who was willing to make great sacrifices in the pursuit of freedom and justice.  Not many would have the courage and conviction to endure 27 years of imprisonment fighting to free the people of South Africa from the racial oppression of apartheid. Mandela spent his entire life fighting and suffering for what was right, and he emerged from his battles with grace and good humor, not anger or bitterness. He is my personal hero, and I will never forget how humbled I felt when I first met him. Ever since that day, I have thought to myself: ‘God spent a lot of time making Nelson Mandela.'”

Mourned In NYC

Mandela’s passing was also marked on the marquee of the famed Apollo Theater, which said, “He changed our world” along with the years of his birth and death.

In Fort Greene, Brooklyn, South African natives filled the street around Madiba Restaruant, sending prayer lantenrs into the sky. The name of the restaurant is refelctive of the tribe Mandela was born into.

Christine Masemola, who grew up in South Africa, told CBS 2’s Jessica Schneider she remembers the day Mandela was released from prison.

“We just all ran out of our houses, ran into the streets and rejoiced and sang and walked in masses for days,” Masemola said. “I remember I walked for three days!”

Some Mandela admirers went to the Angelika Film Center in Greenwich Village on Thursday night for a screening of the movie “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

Reginald told WCBS 880’s Monical Miller the film brought back memories of the time he spent in South Africa.

“When we went to the Mandela Museum and saw the pictures of the dead … it was appauling. He’s a great man.”

Mary road her bike to the theater. She was in South Africa when Mandela was elected president.

“The lines went on for miles,” she said.

‘He Changed Human History’

Wherever he went, Mandela had rock-star status.

Celebrities and world leaders came calling. He preached reconciliation and never spoke of retribution. In 1993, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for the peaceful termination of apartheid. In 1994, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president. He crafted a new constitution, and at 76 years old, he voted for the very first time.

He traveled the world, repairing South Africa’s image and promoting tolerance. But age eventually slowed him down, along with health problems that started decades ago when he contracted tuberculosis in prison. Mandela’s last public appearance was in 2010 when South Africa hosted the World Cup.

“I am honored to have encountered Nelson Mandela on several occasions,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said. “He changed human history and taught activists around the world that in order to legitimately further what is noble, you must actually be a noble person. Nelson Mandela personified someone that nonviolently changed the course of world history with the democratization of South Africa. Everything humanly possible that could be done to someone other than killing them was done to him, yet he maintained his dignity and his determination. It is almost unthinkable what he endured and yet forgave. He taught us that you have to keep your eye on the prize and that nothing you suffer is as important as the goals that you are fighting for. He showed us that you can change the course of human history without lowering yourself to human depravity.”

In his final years, health problems kept Mandela hospitalized and at home, out of the public spotlight. He was visited by dignitaries who wanted to honor a man who never wavered in his devotion to democracy. One of the last times Mandela was seen was in a video with his wife, former wife, many children and grandchildren celebrating his birthday in 2012.

A state funeral is being planned. Public and private farewells will include a memorial service at a Johannesburg soccer stadium.

Government sources say Mandela will lie in state in Pretoria and be buried in his ancestral hometown of Qunu.

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