Luthuli, Albert 1898(?)–1967
Albert Luthuli 1898(?)–1967
South African anti-apartheid leader
“South Africa is large enough to accommodate all people if they have large enough hearts.” That is how Albert Luthuli once summed up his political vision for his country. As one of the leading fighters against South Africa’s system of racial separation, Luthuli brought a message of hope and perseverance to the nation’s oppressed black majority. Although he advocated bold defiance of his country’s discriminatory apartheid laws, he was committed to the principle of nonviolence; and he envisioned a color-blind South Africa in which black and white citizens could live side-by-side peacefully as equals. In 1960 Luthuli became the first black African to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of his many years at the forefront of the struggle for racial justice in South Africa.
Albert John Luthuli was born in about 1898—exact records were not kept—in a Congregationalist mission in Rhodesia, where his father worked as an interpreter. Both of his parents had been born in South Africa, and the family had a prominent history in the Zulu community. When Luthuli was a young child, his father died. His mother then moved the family back to South Africa, settling on a farm run by Christian missionaries in the Natal Province. She sent Albert to live with his uncle, Martin Luthuli, the reigning chief of the Abase-makholweni Zulus in Groutville, north of Durban. At Groutville, Luthuli began attending school. In 1915 he entered Edendale, a Methodist teachers’ college. After graduating from Edendale, Luthuli served for a short time as principal and sole faculty member of a small school in the Natal Province.
In 1920 Luthuli was awarded a scholarship for further study at Adams Mission Station College. After two years as a student there, he accepted a teaching position at the college. He remained on the Adams faculty for the next 13 years. In 1935 Luthuli was asked by a group of tribal leaders to run for the democratically elected position of chief of the Umvoti Mission Reserve, the same Groutville-based post formerly held by his uncle. Upon winning the election, he resigned from his teaching job and undertook the task of administering the affairs of the reserve’s 5,000 tribal members.
At a Glance…
Born Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli, c 1898, in a Congregational i st mission near Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); died, 1967; son of John Bunyan Luthuli (an interpreter and evangelist) andMtonya (maiden name Cumede) Luthuli; married Nokukhanya Be-hengu (a teacher), 1927; seven children. Education: Edendale (a Methodist teacher-training institute), graduated 1917; attended Adams Mission Station College, 1920-21.
Adams Mission Station Col lege, teacher, 1921-35; Abase-makholweni Zulu tribal chief, 1936-53; African National Congress, president-general, 1953-67. Apartheid resistance leader, member of African National Congress.
Selected awards: Nobel Peace Prize, 1960.
Over the next 17 years, Luthuli reigned as chief of the Groutville Zulus. During his first several years as chief, he succeeded in organizing sugar cane farmers and also in gaining a handful of other minor government concessions for his people. He was also active in a number of religious organizations. In 1938 he represented the Christian Council of South Africa at the International Missionary Council in India. He also served as chairman of the Congregational Churches of the American Board, and president of the Natal Mission Conference.
Developments during and after World War II led to Luthuli’s gradual disenchantment with South Africa’s white government and his subsequent politicization. Nonwhites had been led to believe that their loyalty to the government during the war would be rewarded with greater civil rights; however, the government initiated its apartheid system instead. Blacks were required to carry passes and were stripped of their voting rights. In 1946, as protest among blacks simmered, Luthuli joined the African National Congress (ANC), an organization formed in 1912 to promote voting rights for blacks and to unite the various tribes. He became an outspoken critic of apartheid, and by the early 1950s he was president of the ANC’s Natal Provincial Division. In 1952 Luthuli helped organized a nationwide “Defiance Campaign” that included massive violations of laws governing curfews, segregation, and passes.
As Luthuli’s political activity escalated, the government began to take notice. In 1953 he was asked to give up either his job as chief of the reserve or his presidency of the Natal ANC branch. Luthuli ignored the government’s demand, declaring that his duty as a Zulu chief was primarily to his people rather than to the government. When he refused to quit either position, he was dismissed as chief in Groutville. He continued to increase his political involvement while supporting his family by working a small farm. Within a month, Luthuli was named president-general of the entire ANC.
As head of the ANC, Luthuli traveled the country speaking out against the pass laws, the abolition of mission schools, and other unjust policies. He called for an ongoing program of nonviolent protest. The government responded by banning Luthuli from appearing at large gatherings or in major cities for two years. When the period of the ban was over, he picked up right where he had left off, leading protests and spurring crowds to action wherever he went. This time, the government’s reply was to restrict Luthuli to the Groutville area for two more years. In 1955 he was elected to another term as president-general of the ANC.
Luthuli resumed his activities once again upon the expiration of his second ban. Just five months later, he was arrested, along with 155 others, for the capital crime of treason. Luthuli remained in a Johannesburg prison for about a year before the charges against him were finally dropped. By this time, Luthuli was recognized both nationally and internationally as one of the leading crusaders for racial justice in South Africa. Again, he resumed his speaking and organizing activities as soon as he was allowed. In 1959 the government used the new Suppression of Communism Act to confine Luthuli to his small farm for five years, and he was banned from attending any meetings whatsoever. Even from prison and from his farm, Luthuli was able to play a major role in organizing nonviolent protests, particularly a string of “stay-at-homes” in which large numbers of workers did not report for their jobs.
In 1960, some 250 unarmed blacks were shot—about 70 of them fatally—by police during a peaceful demonstration against pass laws in the town of Sharpeville. After the Sharpeville massacre, Luthuli burned his own pass in public, and urged others to follow suit. Amid widespread protest, the government declared a state of emergency. The ANC was outlawed, and thousands of arrests were made. For his role in the protests, Luthuli was sentenced to six months in prison. Because he was suffering from high blood pressure and other ailments by this time, however, Luthuli was released from prison and sent back into exile at Groutville.
In 1961 Luthuli was named as winner of the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize, making him the first black African to be so honored. In announcing the award, the Nobel committee pointed to Luthuli’s refusal to resort to violence throughout his career as a liberation leader. While the announcement was celebrated throughout most of the world, inside South Africa the news was received badly by the white government, which portrayed Luthuli as a traitor and a menace to society. After initial refusals, he was eventually granted permission to travel to Oslo, Norway, to receive the award. In his acceptance speech, Luthuli noted the irony of his presence there. “How great is the paradox and how much greater the honor that an award in support of peace and the brotherhood of man should come to one who is a citizen of a country where the brotherhood of man is an illegal doctrine,” he said. Upon his return to South Africa, Luthuli was prevented from addressing the huge, adoring crowd that had gathered to greet him.
Luthuli again returned to confinement in Groutville. There he wrote his autobiography, Let My People Go, which, to nobody’s surprise, was immediately banned in South Africa. During the last few years of his life, Luthuli’s health began to fail. He was nevertheless still barred from speaking in public, and it was illegal for others to publish or quote his words. He lived a quiet life on his farm, resuming his political work whenever it was feasible. In 1967, with both his hearing and eyesight deteriorating, Luthuli was hit by a train while crossing a railroad bridge.
Despite the South African government’s repeated attempts to silence him, Luthuli’s was clearly one of the most important voices in the collective cry for equality during his lifetime. As white minority rule in South Africa was dismantled in the 1990s, the echoes of that voice remained audible.
Benson, Mary,Chief Albert Luthuli of South Africa, Oxford University Press, 1963.
Luthuli, Albert,Let My People Go, Collins, 1962.
Atlantic, April 1959, pp. 34-39.
Crisis, December 1974, pp. 334-337.
New York Times, July 22, 1967, p. 1.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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