Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu was born in 1931 in Transvaal, South Africa. He had hoped to become a physician, but his family couldn’t afford medical school. Instead, he followed his father’s lead and became a teacher. When the government sanctioned a deliberately inferior system of education for black students, Tutu refused to cooperate and resigned his position after three years.

But there was another calling. Tutu attended St. Peter’s Theological College in Johannesburg, was ordained an Anglican priest in 1961, and pursued a Master of Theology from King’s College London the following year. He served as an associate director for the World Council of Churches and was named dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg in 1975, the first Black South African to hold that position.

In 1978, Tutu was appointed general secretary of the South African Council of Churches. This gave him a prominent national platform from which to vocalize his criticism of the apartheid system as “evil and unchristian” and call for equal rights and a unified system of education. During the 1980s, he played a vital role in drawing national and international attention to the injustices of apartheid, a policy of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race. He encouraged countries dealing with South Africa to impose economic sanctions and always advocated for nonviolent action. In 1984, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace “for his role as a unifying leader figure in the nonviolent campaign to resolve the problem of apartheid in South Africa.”

1985 saw the height of violent protests in South Africa. Tutu became Johannesburg’s first Black Anglican bishop, and in 1986 he was elected the first Black archbishop of Cape Town, becoming the leader of South Africa’s 1.6 million-member Anglican church. In 1990, Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress was released after almost 27 years in prison. South Africa began to repeal discriminatory laws and move towards democracy, and Tutu advocated for the idea of his country as “the Rainbow Nation,” rather than one that was racially divided. In 1995, President Nelson Mandela appointed Tutu head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated allegations of human rights abuses of the previous 34 years. As always, the archbishop focused on forgiveness and cooperation, rather than revenge for past injustices.

Tutu retired in 1996, becoming archbishop emeritus. In 2009, his vital and historic achievements and his ongoing work to promote peace were recognized by President Barack Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A year later, Tutu announced his plan to effectively withdraw from public life but promised to continue his work with the Elders, a group of international leaders he co-founded in 2007 to promote conflict resolution and problem-solving throughout the world. Tutu died on December 26, 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa.