It is very seldom the death of one person can unite the entire world in mourning.

Nelson Mandela was such a person.

The revered South African leader died Thursday at his home in Johannesburg at the age of 95. He had been in ill health for some time.

Mandela was one of the seismic figures in history, who, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., changed the course of a nation through his personality. Despite spending 27 years in prison for his fight against South Africa’s apartheid system, which kept that country’s majority black population in poverty, Mandela helped forge a peaceable transition of power with his former persecutors and was elected president in 1994.

Even prison couldn’t silence Mandela, who saw his influence grow with each passing year behind bars. It was largely through Mandela’s writings from prison that South Africa became a pariah to the rest of the world and suffered economic sanctions because of apartheid.

Mandela supported the sanctions but not violence. He always urged a peaceful change to the government. He had used his years as a political prisoner to forge the philosophy that guided him and his party, The African National Congress, which became a majority party after his release in 1990. Retired archbiship Desmond Tutu recalled how Mandela helped unite South Africa as it dismantled apartheid, and prepared for all-race elections in 1994. In those elections, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.

“All of us here in many ways amazed the world,” Tutu said during a memorial service for Mandela, “a world that was expecting us to be devastated by a racial conflagration.”

Mandela’s time as president may not have brought about all of the changes he and the country’s people hoped for; poverty was then – and still is – a huge problem. But the country has made huge strides.

No matter what Mandela accomplished as South Africa’s leader, it was his belief in non-violence that helped spread his influence far beyond that country’s borders. He was beloved by the world and was treated with reverence wherever he traveled.

With Nelson Mandela’s death, the world lost a bright and shining light. It lost a man who believed positive change not only was possible through peaceful means, but was necessary. That message too often obscured in the world we live in today, but one that is needed now more than ever.