Great human rights champions aren't just political crusaders -- they actually transform humanity, changing history to end cruelty and improve fairness.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped wipe out America's Jim Crow segregation that relegated blacks to poverty and social inferiority. Mahatma Gandhi forced Britain to halt its military subjugation of India.
Nelson Mandela ranks among heroes who pushed democracy to a higher level. Now his death at 95 has saddened almost the entire world.
As a young man, he rebelled against South Africa's vicious apartheid, in which the white minority used brutal force to keep blacks powerless, unable to vote, confined to racial compounds, treated almost like livestock.
At first, Mandela tried to gain black equality through peaceful persuasion, but white rulers used gunfire to block reforms sought by his African National Congress. So he turned to sabotage and was sentenced to life in prison. After 27 years of confinement in a small cell, he finally was vindicated when the moral force of human rights broke the back of apartheid.
He became president of an integrated South Africa, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and drew worldwide affection. His death brought a flood of reactions summing up his greatness. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said Thursday:
"Nelson Mandela was one of the few people in our lifetime who single-handedly changed the arc of history. Mandela's story seems too remarkable to have happened in real life -- imprisoned for decades by his government for fighting apartheid, then rising up to become president of South Africa on an anti-apartheid platform. And even more remarkable is how this man, for whom humility and humor served as his trademarks, became not only a civil rights leader for his people and his country, but for the entire world."
President Obama praised Mandela's "fierce dignity" and said: "He achieved more than could be expected of any man."