Oprah Winfrey and Nelson Mandela
Photo: Louise Gubb
Start reading Oprah's interview with Nelson Mandela

This is a moment I will never forget: Nelson Mandela, a man sentenced to life in prison because of his fight to end segregation in South Africa, walking away free after 27 years. As I watched him emerge from a car that day in 1990, I felt what many around the world did—overwhelming hope and joy. That Mandela survived was a testament to the power of the human spirit to overcome anything.

A few years later I had the honor of meeting Mandela in person—and just sitting in the same room with him was like being in the presence of both grace and royalty. Even now, I can hardly believe that after living in a cell for nearly three decades, he is unscathed by bitterness. He is heralded as a legend around the world because of his brave stand for freedom, yet what's even more amazing is that he allowed none of the indignities he withstood to turn his heart cold.

He could have become vengeful—easily. Born a member of the Madiba clan, Mandela spent his early years in Qunu (pronounced koo-noo). At the age of 9, after his father's death, he was sent away to be raised by the tribal king. But when he moved to Johannesburg as a 23-year-old in the 1940s, he met with the humiliation of white oppression. Under the system of racial segregation called apartheid, South Africans were required to classify themselves as white, Bantu (all black), colored (those of mixed race), or Asian. Blacks could not vote, own property, marry whites, work in white-only jobs, or travel through restricted areas without carrying a passbook. Eventually, nine million blacks were stripped of their homes and jobs as they were forced to relocate to designated "homelands"—outlying areas to which the government banished them, to ensure they'd never be citizens of South Africa.

The injustice infuriated Mandela—and catapulted him into action. In his twenties, he joined an antiapartheid group, the African National Congress (ANC), and, with his colleague Oliver Tambo, opened the country's first black law firm. He married Evelyn Mase, a nurse, and had four children, but by 1957 his commitment to the struggle for freedom overwhelmed his home life and he divorced. The next year he married Winnie Madikizela, with whom he eventually had two daughters.

After the police killed 69 blacks during a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, Mandela, who'd become one of South Africa's most wanted men, was forced to leave his family and take his work underground. He and his comrades endorsed an armed struggle of their own—one that targeted government offices and symbols of apartheid, not people.

Mandela fled his country to travel in Africa and Europe, and when he returned he was arrested and ultimately charged with treason. During his trial, he showed remarkable courage, donning tribal dress and saying: "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society.... If needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." At 46, in the winter of 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison at Robben Island, South Africa's Alcatraz.

Next: How his prison stay changed everything