Albert Lutuli, an African nationalist and Zulu chief, was recognized nationally and internationally for his involvement in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
Although Lutuli and Martin Luther King, Jr., rarely worked closely together, they were mutual admirers. In 1959, after reading Stride Toward Freedom, King’s account of the Montgomery bus boycott, Lutuli told a friend that it was the “greatest inspiration” (Papers 5:307). As a Christian and president of the African National Congress (ANC), Lutuli shared with King the religiously inspired dream of a peacefully integrated society achieved through nonviolent means. In December 1959 King wrote Lutuli of his admiration: “I admire your great witness and your dedication to the cause of freedom and human dignity. You have stood amid persecution, abuse and oppression with a dignity and calmness of spirit . . . One day all of Africa will be proud of your achievements” (Papers 5:344).
Lutuli was born around 1898 in southern Rhodesia. Upon completing a teaching program in 1917, Lutuli took his first job as an elementary school teacher. Two years later he attended Adams College in South Africa where, after earning a higher degree, he remained on faculty for 15 years. During his time at Adams, the devoutly religious Lutuli became a lay preacher. An active member of the Christian community, he served as chairman of the South African Board of the Congregationalist Church of America and as president of the Natal Mission Conference. In 1936 Lutuli accepted the call to serve as chief of the Groutville Reserve Tribe, an area populated by about 5,000 Zulus. For the next 17 years, Lutuli remained chief until he was desposed by the government in 1952.
In 1945, Lutuli was elected provincial executive secretary for the Natal branch of the ANC, an organization formed in 1912 to unite tribes and promote voting rights for blacks. By 1952 Lutuli was president, a position he held until his death. Lutuli’s leadership within his tribe and in the ANC coincided with the escalation of discriminatory legislation in South Africa, and a series of new laws systematically disenfranchised all black, Indian, and colored South Africans, pushing them literally and figuratively to the margins of South African society. Due to his vocal dissent against apartheid, Luthuli was banned several times from South African public life and confined within a 15 mile radius of his home.
Lutuli’s unrelenting dedication to the anti-apartheid movement was acknowledged when he became the first black African to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960. Almost immediately after receiving the award, Lutuli joined King to issue an Appeal for Action against Apartheid, under the sponsorship of the American Committee on Africa, which urged people to protest apartheid through nonviolent actions such as boycotts, demonstrations, and public education..
After returning from Africa in March 1964, James W. King, an Ohio minister, relayed a message from Lutuli to King: “I asked Chief Lutuli what he would want Americans to know. He said: ‘Give my highest regards to Martin Luther. It is not often that we see clergymen taking a stand on social issues. It means a lot to us here. . . Martin Luther King is my hero” (W. King, 25 March 1964). King’s respect for Lutuli was such that, in his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he honored Lutuli’s work in South Africa and forged a link between the civil rights movement and the African Liberation Movement, saying, “You honor, once again, Chief Lutuli of South Africa, whose struggles with and for his people are still met with the most brutal expressions of man’s inhumanity to man” (King, 108). Lutuli died in 1967 at age 69.
Bryan to King, 10 October 1959, in Papers 5:307-308.
James W. King to King, 25 March 1964, LewBP-INP.
King, A Call to Conscience, Carson and Shepard, eds., 2001.
King to Lutuli, 8 December 1959, in Papers 5:344-345.