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Black History Month legal tribute: Nelson Mandela

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” — Nelson Mandela

Johnetta G. Paye, Esq. and her father, John Paye

Johnetta G. Paye, Esq. and her father John Paye

In a lot of ways, my father and namesake taught me what it means to be courageous. My father immigrated to the United States from the West African nation of Liberia in January 1980. My parents were upper-middle class. They owned a transportation business, and my dad had a government job working for the president of Liberia. Although we had a comfortable life in Liberia, my dad’s decision to leave his comfort zone was a huge risk.

At the time, there was no way for him to know how his decision would substantially impact the lives of his children, grandchildren and future generations. When my dad came to the United States, he left a wife and two young daughters. My older sister was only 4 years old, and I was 3 months. My dad knew that if he stayed in Liberia the opportunities for his family would be limited. He wanted his children to have every opportunity to succeed in this world and become anything their hearts desired.

My father conquered his fears and came to America on a student visa to attend college. Initially, life in America was a struggle for my father because he was lonely and homesick. In order to support himself, he worked as a dishwasher and earned a minimum wage of $4.25. Today, my dad is a nurse and has gone to Liberia on medical missions to provide much-needed health care to individuals who have limited access to medical assistance.

My mom came to the United States to be with my father a year after he left Liberia. My older sister and I were reunited with our parents in America a year and half after my mom left Liberia. My parents always told us if we work hard and got a good education, we could become anything we wanted to be in America.


They also made sure we never forgot our African culture. As a child, I remember watching news reports on Nelson Mandela’s fight against the South African apartheid regime. The images of Mandela’s stance against social injustice had a profound impact and influenced my career path.


“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” — Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was born in a small South African village and later on in life became a lawyer. This resonated with me. Like Mandela, I was born in a small town in Africa. Not many Africans are afforded the opportunity to leave their village or town to pursue educational opportunities that would enable them to make law a profession.

Mandela completed his B.A. at the University of South Africa. He also obtained a two-year diploma in law. In August 1952, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo established South Africa’s first black law firm, Mandela & Tambo. While an attorney, Mandela began a career as a social activist.  As a result of his social activism, Mandela was arrested and tried on several occasions. On October 9, 1963, Mandela and 10 others were tried for sabotage and faced the death penalty. This trial become known as the Rivonia Trial. During the trial, Mandela delivered his famous “Speech from the Dock” in which he stated: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”   

At the end of the trial, Mandela and seven others were sentenced to life in prison.  Mandela was sent to the prison Robben Island to serve his time.  After 26 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was released on February 11, 1990. On May 10, 1994, Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected president. (Source:



“There is no passion to be found playing small — in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” — Nelson Mandela


On December 5, 2013, the day of Mandela’s passing, I spoke on a panel for the movie “A Long Walk to Freedom.” For me, it was an honor to pay tribute to the life and legacy of a fellow African and lawyer at a historical moment in time. Madiba’s life demonstrates that a person can come from humble beginnings and make a significant impact in their community and the world.





Please visit J. Paye in Brief’s News to read the entire six-part Black History Month legal series tribute, honoring former President Barack H. Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama, Nelson Mandela, Loretta Lynch, Kamala Harris and Charlotte E. Ray.

Find out more about Johnetta Paye Esq. at J. Paye & Associates today.

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