And that’s the way it was: February 11, 1990

South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela is freed from prison after 27 years

If it had happened today, it would break the Internet a little.

On February 11, 1990, after having served 27 years for “treason against the state,” Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison a free man. The international press had been staking out the prison for days, in anticipation of his release. One journalist, who covered the event for the South African Press Association, recalls just beating a Reuters reporter to a phone to file the story. Mandela’s “walk to freedom,” from the gates of the jail to the front of Cape Town’s City Hall with his then-wife Winnie Mandela, was broadcast live on TV channels around the world.

Suddenly, a man who hadn’t been seen in public in a quarter century — whose image had been banned in South Africa for more than two decades — became one of the most famous and revered faces of our time.

Here are a few snapshots from American press coverage of Mandela’s release:

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