Nelson Mandela stands among the great world leaders and revolutionaries of history, including America’s founding fathers and Abraham Lincoln, President Barack Obama said in his remarks at the memorial service for the late South African leader in Johannesburg Tuesday.

Obama Nelson Mandela Memorial Service

President Barack Obama speaks to crowds attending the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto near Johannesburg, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. World leaders, celebrities, and citizens from all walks of life gathered on Tuesday to pay respects during a memorial service for the former South African president and anti-apartheid icon. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement, a movement that at its start had little prospect for success,” Obama said. “Like Dr. King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice.”

Obama commented that Mandela was imprisoned from the time John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were the leaders of the United States and Soviet Union until the end of the Cold War.

“Emerging from prison, without the force of arms, he would—like Abraham Lincoln—hold his country together when it threatened to break apart,” Obama said. “And like America’s founding fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations—a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power after only one term.”

The memorial service was held at the First National Bank Stadium and included current and former heads of state from around the world. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were accompanied on the 16-hour flight aboard Air Force One by former President George W. Bush, former first lady Laura Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Obama referred to Mandela as the last great liberator of the 20th century.

“For nothing he achieved was inevitable,” Obama said. “In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness, persistence and faith. He tells us what’s possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well.”

“We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” Obama later said. “But let me say to the people of Africa, and young people around the world: You can make his life’s work your own.”

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