No Future Without Forgiveness – A Tribute to Archbishop Desmond Tutu

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it is those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” ~ Desmond Tutu

On December 26, 2021, the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town, passed away at the age of 90 in Cape Town, South Africa. Tutu led a life of service to the Anglican church, culminating in his promotion to Bishop of Johannesburg in 1985, and then Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 until 1996. He was the first Black African to hold these most senior positions in the Anglican church hierarchy for that region. “The Arch” (as he was popularly known) was also known for his work to end Apartheid and as a human rights activist. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

Tutu is greeted by Jesse Jackson, then they embrace
US Delegation to the Inauguration of President Nelson Mandela, May 10, 1994. Archbishop Tutu is greeted by Rev. Jesse Jackson (NAID 24717040)

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born October 7, 1931 in northwest South Africa of Motswana and Xhosa heritage. In 1951, he began his studies to become a teacher at Pretoria Bantu Normal College, briefly meeting future president Nelson Mandela. In 1954, Tutu began teaching high school English and history, and also met his wife Nomalizo Leah Shenxane a teacher and nurse. After marrying in 1955, the Tutus had four children. As Apartheid deepened and solidified, Tutu turned away from the institutionalized inferior education system and became an Anglican priest, being ordained in 1960.

Tutu, standing with a yellow t-shirt that reads END APARTHIED- JUNE 14
Desmond Tutu at an anti-apartheid rally in New York City, 1986 (Library of Congress)

In 1978, Desmond Tutu was made General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, granting him his first international exposure and ability to challenge the system of Apartheid. Tutu was committed to non-violent anti-apartheid opposition and protest – regularly voicing support of the international economic boycott of South Africa, and attending marches, protests, and rallies. While visiting the United States in 1984, Tutu addressed the United Nations Security Council, and met with the Congressional Black Caucus. In spite of being critical of the administration and US relations with the Apartheid government, Tutu visited the White House and was welcomed by President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George W. Bush (NAID 75502722, starting at 32:10).

Tutu smiling in purple frock
Desmond Tutu, 1997 (courtesy flickr)

In 1986, Tutu was elected Archbishop of Cape Town and was enthroned on September 7, 1986. Serving as Archbishop continued to be an act of resistance to Apartheid – when he moved into the official residence which was located in a white only area. During his tenure, he also secured the right for women to become ordained priests in the Anglican church, and appointed gay priests to senior positions. After Apartheid was dismantled with universal suffrage elections in 1994, Desmond Tutu was appointed as Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The body was organized in three stages to enact restorative justice for wrongs committed during Apartheid: confession, forgiveness, and restitution.

President Obama and Tutu embrace
President Barack Obama greets Archbishop Desmond Tutu as he arrives at the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, June 30, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, NAID 157649838)

Many of the records of the National Archives relating to Archbishop Desmond Tutu are from his visits with Presidents, Vice Presidents, or members of Congress. Records relating to the US government relations with Apartheid era South Africa also relate to Tutu. He also appears in records of the Department of State in the reports from the Foreign Service officers. Below are a few selections:

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