“Our nation has lost its greatest son,” [South African] President Jacob Zuma said in a televised address on Thursday night, adding that Mr. Mandela had died at 8:50 p.m. local time. “His humility, his compassion and his humanity earned him our love.”

The Internet is awash with remembrances of Mandela from people who never knew him. Some will be self-important and tiresome, but most are just the honest, gut feelings of millions—each a testament to the reach of this towering, touching figure of the 20th century. I never knew him, but I knew the power of his inspiration and his example. As a kid, attending majority-black schools in North Carolina less than a generation removed from segregation, my classmates and I knew we were there, together, because of the bravery and leadership of good people who came before us. It was a hard thing to grasp at 7 (likely easier for my black classmates), vague at first. We played hopscotch under the arc of the moral universe, rarely looking skyward to see where it was bending. But there were moments when, in our innocence, we could feel the weight of what happened before we were born— a trip to Woolworth’s in Greensboro just minutes away or the release of Nelson Mandela on the other side of the world.

Greater awareness and hormones intervened, turning middle school into a place of racial tension where old friendships were taboo and anger reigned. Mandela’s example of a man supremely wronged who did not let bitterness overtake him seemed amazing, otherworldly. I’ll always be thankful he was the leader who rose while a bunch of confused teenagers in North Carolina were hurting from wounds old and new. Mandela’s life and death, of course, are not about me or my experiences. But the enormity of what Mandela did gave so many the opportunity to discover the beautiful joys and challenges we experienced alongside all God’s children. And, he gave my friends and me an idea of the giant people and giant sacrifices required to allow us to live in a neighborhood where “little black boys and girls” literally, routinely held hands with “little white boys and girls.” It was a gift and it wasn’t always a given. But it’s easy to take for granted what seems impossible after it’s already been done.

The New York Times makes one succinct paragraph of what’s one of the most improbable turn-arounds in history:

Mr. Mandela spent 27 years in prison after being convicted of treason by the white minority government, only to forge a peaceful end to white rule by negotiating with his captors after his release in 1990. He led the African National Congress, long a banned liberation movement, to a resounding electoral victory in 1994, the first fully democratic election in the country’s history.

It’s hard not to look back at moments like that, like the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, the Cold War and marvel at how lucky we are to have had the right leaders in the right places to make things happen. And to marvel at the sheer force of will and skill it took to make them happen. The Washington Post has an interesting read on Mandela, the political animal behind the saintly figure. He needed the soft-spoken, forgiving side and the savvy, harder political side to change his country:

Admirable as they were, those saintly virtues don’t begin to explain his political genius. Mandela was also cunning, iron-willed, bull-headed, contemptuous — and more embittered than he let on. He needed all of his traits — soft and hard — to engineer a political miracle: persuading a sitting government to negotiate its own abdication by yielding power to the very people it had ruthlessly oppressed.

Historic transfers of that magnitude typically occur only at gunpoint. To pull it off peacefully, Mandela knew that he had to tame the racial fears and hatreds that have haunted beautiful South Africa since the first whites settled there four centuries ago. He needed to teach militant blacks that they couldn’t take revenge and frightened whites that they shouldn’t fear retribution.

Mandela didn’t do all that by himself. On both sides of the racial divide, he had the help of legions of sophisticated negotiators determined to find a peaceful path to democracy. His main partner, President Frederik W. de Klerk, was a shrewd Afrikaner who had the foresight to understand that the grotesque apartheid system he once championed was destroying his country, and he had the fortitude to stick with his surrender-without-a-fight strategy through four arduous years of start-and-stop negotiations, even as the deal grew less attractive for the white minority that had put him in power.

Read the whole thing if you have the time. Mandela is not just the man with the halo, and he couldn’t have done what he did if he were.

Mandela’s most famous quotes.

Mandela’s life in pictures.

Thoughts and prayers for his family and his countrymen.