Taking his place alongside India's Mahatma Gandhi and Tibet's Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela was one of the 20th century’s most revered activists and a triumphant icon in the struggle for racial equality. The Daily Beast looks back at the defining moments that made the former political prisoner turned South African president a legend.

First Interview

In 1961, Mandela was a wanted man for his leadership in the African National Congress, which was turning to increasingly violent methods in its fight for equality. “We have made it very clear in our policy that South Africa is a country of many races, there is room for all the races in this country,” he told journalist Brian Widlake, who was granted an interview with the elusive political leader. Just one year later, after 17 months on the run, he’d be captured, sentenced to life imprisonment, and locked up for 27 years on Robben Island.

Release From Prison

“I must confess I am unable to describe my emotion,” Mandela told reporters upon being released from prison in 1990—a grueling 27 years after his incarceration. Even though he was already an old man and had been through hard labor and isolating prison conditions, the civil-rights icon wasn’t thinking about retirement. “We remain committed to peace,” he said. “And if the government gave us an opportunity, if they normalize the situation, we are ready to make a positive contribution.”

Inaugural Address

The 1994 presidential election marked two historic firsts for South Africa. The world watched closely on April 27, as the country held its first multiracial election, and less than a month later, South Africa elected its first black president. Just four years out of jail, Mandela praised the progress his country was making in his inaugural address. “Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud,” he said. “Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity's belief in justice.”

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