WASHINGTON -- The death of former South African President Nelson Mandela brought swift and heartfelt reaction from members of Congress, many of whom had personally interacted with the anti-apartheid leader, and others who were inspired in their own public service by his life from afar.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called Mandela "an unrelenting voice for democracy."
"Mandela led his countrymen through times of epic change with a quiet moral authority that directed his own path from prisoner to president," Boehner said. "He passes this world as a champion of peace and racial harmony."
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the Democratic minority leader, said Mandela's long life was "a story of courage, a triumph over fear, a whole-hearted faith in the power, promise and possibility of the human spirit."
"May his story long remind us to always look forward with optimism to the future," she said.
Among those who had met the former president, Mandela's personal example guided their own pursuits as they provided support to his struggle for equality.
"I have long thought to myself: 'God spent a lot of time making Nelson Mandela,' " said Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) upon first meeting Mandela. "He is my personal hero."
"Not even death can dim the light Nelson Mandela brought to this world," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who had also met the former president. "Courage and commitment are rare, but like Abraham Lincoln, Mandela added a caring and forgiving heart to his amazing life story. The world is a better place because of the life he lived and hope he encouraged."
"President Mandela's fight for freedom was a personal inspiration for me," said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), who said his example moved "a generation of us who, though far from South Africa, took up the cause to fight against apartheid."
As a church worker in South Africa in the 1980s, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on African Affairs, said he saw firsthand the "terrible cruelty and fundamental injustice of an apartheid system."
"The world has lost a true hero," Coons said.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, called Mandela "one of the great statesmen of our time and a global symbol of reconciliation."
"May his passing lead to a deeper commitment to reconciliation around the world," McConnell said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) recalled a cherished moment after he and other senators escorted Mandela to the House for a joint meeting of Congress in 1994.
"Sitting together in a room off the House floor, I said to him, 'Mr. President, you spent decades in prison, unjustly, yet you don't seem bitter.' He replied: 'Patrick, because of my imprisonment I was able to lead my country out of apartheid. For that I do not feel bitterness, but joy.' "
Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) attended Mandela's inauguration that year, a moment he called "inspiring ... to witness firsthand a truly great figure at a pivotal point in history."
Off Capitol Hill, civil rights groups noted that the equality Mandela fought for is a struggle that continues for many today.
"Nelson Mandela tore down oppression, united a rainbow nation," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, among the nation's leading organizations advocating for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. "Though every man, woman and child who seeks justice around the world mourns this loss, his vision of an equal future lives on undimmed."