While many children spent Christmas Eve in a warm home, decorating holiday cookies and waiting for Santa Claus, 10-year-old Atiyya Mubdi-bey and her 5-year-old sister, Aliya, stood in front of Baltimore's City Hall in the numbing cold to light candles and say a prayer for black South Africans who still live under the oppression of apartheid.
Joining the girls were several other youngsters and about 70 adults in the 10th annual vigil organized by Representative Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th, to protest the South African regime, ,, under which blacks are denied basic civil rights.
"I am protesting against South Africa," said Atiyya, who had come from Delaware to visit her grandfather for Christmas and for Kwanzaa, an African-American celebration.
When asked why she opposed apartheid, Atiyya sternly responded: "Because apartheid means one race hates the other, and all people should love each other."
Her grandfather, 70-year-old James Crockett of Ashburton, proudly listened. He said he has attended each of the previous nine anti-apartheid vigils and takes his grandchildren with him every chance he gets.
"I've been standing against racial injustice since the 1950s," said Mr. Crockett, a real estate agent. "And once it gets in your blood, you learn that the struggle continues and will continue for generations.
"So that's why I bring my grandchildren," he said. "Now the struggle is in their blood too."
Mr. Mfume had billed last night's vigil, which started just after 6 p.m., as his last, saying he wants to turn his attentions to what he described as the apartheid of Baltimore, where affordable housing is unattainable for many and too many children go to sleep hungry.
But he charged the cheering crowd -- especially the young adults -- to take over the event because, despite the release of Nelson Mandela, the sanctioning of the African National Congress and other steps toward equality in South Africa, blacks there are far from free.
"Twenty years ago, I'd have given my arm, my heart, my anything to see Nelson Mandela released from prison," Mr. Mufume said. "We never thought it would happen."
"While Nelson Mandela has been released from prison, he is not free," said Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcorso, who was born in South Africa and moved to Baltimore 10 years ago. "He still cannot cast a vote, and I appeal to everyone that this vigil must continue until I can cast a vote in South Africa."
"Let's keep the light on," she implored.