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Local Pastor Recalls His Battles Against Apartheid

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Rochester: Local Pastor Recalls His Battles Against Apartheid
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More reaction to the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela, who passed away Thursday. Seth Voorhees spoke to a retired Rochester pastor, who years ago had his own role in the fight against apartheid in Mandela's homeland.

"Martin Luther King, in his letter from the Birmingham jail, said that time is on the side of evil. And not good," Rev. Richard Gilbert recalls.

Part of a speech the Reverend Richard Gilbert read to Eastman Kodak Shareholders in 1980. The reception?

"Cool, at best," Gilbert said.

The pastor of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester was trying to convince Kodak to stop doing business in South Africa as part of a group working to end apartheid.

"And of course the resolution was turned down," Gilbert said. "I received a very hostile reception."

At the time, Nelson Mandela was in the midst of a 27-year prison sentence. The man who was later freed and eventually helped negotiate and end apartheid in his homeland.

"He is, in my judgement, one of the true prophets of our times, as a prophet is one who speaks truth to power," Gilbert said.

And, says Gilbert, a rare man who was able to turn the tide of history.

"He was successful in transforming this country from an apartheid, oppressive regime into a democratic, multi-cultural, multi-racial society, and lived to see his triumph," Gilbert said.

Here in Rochester, Gilbert saw a moral obligation to fight apartheid.

"There was rampant oppression of one group of people," Gilbert said. "A racist oppression."

He and others in the Rochester anti-apartheid coalition targeted companies like Kodak, which had considerable holdings there. Kodak did eventually pull out of South Africa, but it didn't happen until 1986, when the company said at the time, there appeared to be no end in sight to apartheid.

By the mid 90's that changed when Mandela moved from prisoner to president.

Gilbert says Mandela's impact will be a long-lasting one. And, a reminder, that a fight for justice is not just some sort of extracurricular activity.

"And anyone who is serious about transforming the world to a more just and peaceful place, is going to have to have the kind of persistence that Mandela exhibited in his life," Gilbert said.

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