At a historic crossroads in Harlem Nelson Mandela staked his claim. One by one, he invoked the black heroes and martyrs whose words had echoed there before him: Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. There were perhaps 100,000 people pressed against the barricades, filling the streets in all four directions from the platform, and the roar swelled louder as each of the great names sounded. "I am here to claim you because ... you have claimed our struggle," Mandela said. "Harlem signifies the glory of resistance. We are on the verge of victory ... Death to racism! " That brought the loudest roar of all, a mighty ovation in the gathering dusk.

With his regal bearing, his smiling serenity and his unbroken spirit after 27 years in South African prisons, Mandela was an authentic heir to the heroes' mantle. And in New York last week, the Harlem rally, a ticker-tape parade, a United Nations address and an ecstatic, chanting celebration in Yankee Stadium launched him on what promised to be a triumphal progress through seven other U.S. cities. He was to meet with George Bush, to hobnob with congressional and local leaders, to be hailed and feted wherever he went. Bush was ready to oblige him by preserving sanctions against the South African government, at least for a while; Mandela would surely raise millions in donations for his African National Congress. But for African-Americans, the real meaning of the visit would be the chance to take pride in Mandela's strength and endurance and thus in their own black identity. Watching the ticker-tape parade, Jason Johnston, 20, cradled his 4-month-old sister in his arms. "I'm glad she saw it," he said softly, "so we can say to her, 'You were there. You were part of history'. "

It was Mandela's sixth trip outside South Africa since his release from prison last February, and for a while there were grave doubts that the 71-year-old rebel was up to the task. He arrived from Canada two hours behind schedule to allow for added rest, and he was so fatigued by his first day in New York that even a quiet dinner with Mayor David Dinkins had to be scrubbed. Old rumors surfaced that he had serious medical problems--high blood pressure or kidney trouble. But he was determined to carry his message to America: that no matter what concessions on apartheid South African president F. W. de Klerk might offer, it was no time to relent on the economic sanctions that had forced de Klerk to act. After a night's sleep and a brisk strc in the morning beside the East River, Mandela launched on two more days of strenous official activities.

Key glimpses: New York's welcome began with pomp and circumstance. There was the arrival at Kennedy Airport, with officials and celebrities jostling each other for camera position, and an appearance at a largely black high school in the BedfordStuyvesant district. There was the ticker tape parade; in this age of computerized trading, 150 miles of paper tape had to be imported from Connecticut, and for security's sake Mandela had to ride in a bulletproof greenhouse perched on a flatbed truck-the Mandelamobile. On the steps of City Hall, Dinkins gave him the key to the city. But what mattered most was that he was there--and that 750,000 New Yorkes had at least caught a glimpse of their hero in the flesh. Jimmy Mitchell, an elderly deliveryman caught in the crush on lower Broadway, didn't even manage that. But he said with quiet satisfaction, "I saw Mandela in my heart, and he touched my heart more than any [other] individual. This moment summed up the feelings of a lifetime."

Then it was time for celebration, music and mutual admiration. At Riverside Church, there was dancing in the aisles to an African beat. "We have risen up on the wings of eagles," Mandela said, quoting the prophet Isaiah. "We have walked and not fainted. Our destination is in sight." Yankee Stadium brought more speeches and music by such stars as Richie Havens, Judy Collins and Tracy Chapman. "You, the people, never abandoned us," Mandela told the crowd of 50,000. "From behind the granite walls, political prisoners could hear loud and clear your voice of solidarity . . . We are winning because you made it possible."

But as often as he talked of victory, Mandela warned that hard struggles lay ahead. At a breakfast with top businessmen, he sought to persuade them that South Africa after apartheid would be a sound investment, and his United Nations talk was a defense of continued sanctions mixed with warnings that white South African terrorists were plotting to kill him and other ANC leaders. (As if to underscore his words, Pretoria announced the arrest of 11 whites charged with plotting to kill both Mandela and de Klerk.) Then he was off on a tour that would take him to Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Detroit, Los Angeles and Oakland.

For a while, Mandela seemed firmly in the maw of the American celebrity machine. The gush was nearly constant. He was eulogized as "a modern-day Moses" (at least three times, starting with Dinkins), "the drum major in the music of freedom" (Brooklyn Baptist pastor Gardner Taylor) and "one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world" (singer Harry Belafonte). His speeches were a bit stilted and his delivery ranged from wooden to adequate, but dazzled TV commentators found them "rousing." Supporters joined in the adoration. "It's not sufficient to call him a hero or a role model," said Paul Mondesire, a TV technician. "He's as close to a divine human being as we'll ever see."

When skeptics challenged that image, however, Mandela made no effort to soften his steelier side. He is an unabashed revolutionary: he hasn't renounced the use of violence, he wants to nationalize at least some industries, and he remains willing to take help from anyone and return the favor. He has triggered conservative fears by praising Libya's Muammar Kaddafi (for "your commitment to the fight for peace and human rights in the world") and Cuba's Fidel Castro (for "love of human rights and of freedom"). Many Jews have been disturbed by his embrace of Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization. And when ABC's Ted Koppel interviewed Mandela last week, Mandela repeated his defense of Kaddafi, Castro and Arafat, "a comrade in arms." They all "support our struggle to the hilt," he said; he is busy fighting racial tyranny, and he has "no time to be looking into the internal affairs of other countries . . . Why are you so keen that I should involve myself in the internal affairs of Cuba and Libya?" When that question reduced Koppel to stammering silence, Mandela said dryly, "I expect you to be consistent. I don't know if I have paralyzed you." Koppel quickly called a commercial break.

That exchange ruffled Miami's Cuban exiles so much that there was talk of rescinding the city council's official welcome for Mandela. But such controversial views don't hurt him among most U.S. blacks, who excuse even his wife Winnie, who embarrassed the ANC in South Africa with her lavish lifestyle in recent years and her involvement in the fatal beating of a 14-year-old boy by some of her bodyguards. She got her full share of Mandela's limelight last week; at the Harlem rally, she was cheered when she called Harlem "the Soweto of America" and invoked the specter of racial war in South Africa: "We want you to be there if we go back to the bush and fight the white man." All but unanimously, her admirers shrugged off the charges against her as calumnies in the white press.

Around the country, most of the throngs waiting for Mandela were just as uncritical. They were fighting for positions on his crowded and ever-changing schedule, lining up for the privilege of handing him checks, and signing up for dinners ($5,000 a couple in Boston) and receptions ($1,000 a head in Detroit) even when sponsors warned that they couldn't even guarantee that Mandela would drop by. For people so long starved for heroes, Nelson Mandela was a mythic figure--and in the flesh, with his dignity and solid strength, he proved even better. "He has touched people, and that's how things get changed," said Jason Johnston after the Mandelamobile had passed. "It's not drug lords or politicians who change things, but individuals like Mandela. [They] touch people's hearts and affect them for the rest of their lives."