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(CNN) - Civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson was in Capetown the day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison a free man, after more than 27 years of confinement.
"It was so overwhelming ... there had been such a great buildup, such anticipation," said Jackson.
Young people in South Africa, and all over the world, will know of Mandela only from history books. Jackson says his wish is that they remember his forgiveness.
"Having come through the scars of exile, the scars of 27 years of jail, through all of that, he said we must get up from here and don't linger here," said Jackson. "That we must choose at this point reconciliation, over retaliation and revenge."
Read: Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid icon and father of modern South Africa, dies
South Africa's struggle with apartheid was akin to the civil rights movement of the United States, says Jackson.
"We coordinated our activities, and we knew that his persecution was redemptive, because he was only guilty of trying to end a system that had no more honor in the world," said Jackson.
In the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan designated the African National Congress a terrorist group, and vetoed a bill by Congress to push for Mandela's release. Congress later overrode the veto. Apartheid was a heated debate all over the country, especially on college campuses. Indeed, former President Jimmy Carter's daughter was arrested three times protesting apartheid while in college.
"The U.S. chose (South Africa State Presidents) de Klerk and P.W. Botha, and the apartheid regime as our ally," said Jackson.
"It had no moral standing in the world, so people began to rebel against it," Jackson said.
But Mandela was also a controversial figure. In 2002, as the debate about the war in Iraq was beginning, but before it had launched, Mandela said, "If there's a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world it is the United States of America. They don't care for human beings."
While there are plenty of areas of American foreign policy ripe for criticism, saying the U.S. does not care about human beings seems to be an unfair statement.
Asked how he can reconcile Mandela's divisive statements, with the magnificence of his accomplishments and his forgiveness, Jackson said given the United States' history on slavery, "We should be very humble in our approach about this."
"He was simply saying that going into Iraq was a preemptive strike, broke international law. As a matter of fact, the biggest demonstration in the history of the world took place that day, people saying do not invade Iraq," said Jackson. "He was saying we were wrong."
Mandela had "high hopes" and "high regard" for America, and recognized the country's influence, says Jackson.
"He knew the big lever to change the course was America," said Jackson.