CHICAGO – In one of his first public appearances since being released from prison this year, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan told attendees at a memorial service Sunday that Nelson Mandela played a role in his 2003 decision to empty death row.
His nearly five-minute speech at the Chicago church where U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush preaches – mostly stories about meeting Mandela in 2000 – was met with hearty applause, particularly as Ryan described commuting the sentences of Illinois' death row inmates. The move, which put Ryan in the national spotlight, eventually led to the state abolishing the death penalty in 2011.
The event, where Mandela's portrait hung above the pulpit, was billed as the "people's tribute" and included speeches by Rush, fellow Chicago Democrat U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, Nation of Islam officials, community leaders and Chicago-based consuls general from several countries.
Ryan, 79, described his first meeting with Mandela in South Africa during a gubernatorial trade mission. The half-hour discussion at Mandela's home was "filled with emotion and inspiration," Ryan said.
Three years later, as Ryan was considering what to do — and before he concluded Illinois' capital punishment law was flawed — he received a call from Mandela. Ryan said Mandela "asked me to do what I did."
The former governor also praised Mandela's attributes of kindness and the ability for forgive. Mandela was buried Sunday in Qunu, South Africa.
"President Mandela transcended the boundaries of South Africa," Ryan told attendees. "The world has been forever blessed by the work and the deeds of Nelson Mandela."
The memorial drew a unique slice of Illinois politicians, religious leaders and activists. Themes of persecution, perseverance and prison reigned.
Rush, whose activism began in the 1960s when he helped found the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers in the 1960s, spoke about his admiration for Mandela. A Nation of Islam minister talked about Mandela's time behind bars. The Arab American Action Network's leader made parallels to the arrest of an Arab-American on immigration charges this year for allegedly lying about her conviction for a deadly bombing more than 40 years ago in Israel.
And then there was Ryan, who was released from prison in January and home confinement in July after serving more than five years at an Indiana prison.
He was convicted in 2006 of racketeering, conspiracy, tax fraud and making false statements to the FBI. He also was accused of stopping an investigation into employees with the secretary of state's office accepting bribes for truck driver's licenses.
Political experts said Ryan's appearance could be an indicator of how he proceeds with public life, perhaps sticking mostly to groups that'll welcome him. He has been praised by anti-death penalty activists and hinted previously that he may pursue that as an issue.
"It doesn't really rehabilitate George Ryan from the scandal," said Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said of the appearance. "He may get a sense of there are people who remember the good things he did."