Desmond Tutu stood for freedom and justice for all

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OPINION: The archbishop was a giant in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa but he also spoke out for women’s rights and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, the Palestinian people and the environment.

In a season when we have lost so many Black leaders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has left us in body at age 90 but remains with us in spirit as an ancestor.

Fondly known as the “Arch,” Tutu was a theologian and human rights activist who won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts at breaking apart the apartheid system in South Africa. Apartheid, which kept Black South Africans separated into Bantustan homelands, without rights and violently oppressed in their own country, was bolstered by a legal system of racial hierarchy placing white people at the top. This was South Africa’s own version of Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. and the Nuremberg laws in Nazi Germany.

“The passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is another chapter of bereavement in our nation’s farewell to a generation of outstanding South Africans who have bequeathed us a liberated South Africa,” tweeted South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Although Archbishop Tutu was a giant in the struggle for freedom and justice in apartheid South Africa, much less is known about his fight for women’s rights and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, the Palestinian people and the environment.

For example, he once said he “would rather go to hell than to a homophobic heaven” and proclaimed that “If God, as they say, is homophobic, I wouldn’t worship that God.” Tutu advocated at the United Nations for equality for women and LGBTQ+ people and was known for his empathy as he stood with them and supported same-sex marriage. “People are penalized solely on the basis of their sexual orientation—I oppose such injustice with the same passion I opposed apartheid,” Tutu said.

“Palestine mourns the passing of Desmond Tutu, whose humanity & compassion were equalled only by his courage & principled commitment in our shared struggle for justice & freedom. His support for Palestine was an embrace of love & empathy. I’m honoured to have had him as a friend,” tweeted former Palestinian Minister of Higher Education Hanan Ashrawi.

On the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian people—a system that Israel’s leading human rights organization calls apartheid—Tutu found that with policies of separation walls and home demolitions, the situation in the Palestinian territories is in some ways worse than in apartheid South Africa.

Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu gestures during a press conference about the first 20 years of freedom in South Africa at St Georges Cathedral in Cape Town on April 23, 2014. (Photo by Jennifer BRUCE / AFP) (Photo by JENNIFER BRUCE/AFP via Getty Images)

“The Israeli politicians are aware they can get away with almost anything because the West is guilty. It feels guilty about what they didn’t do in when the Holocaust happened, and they’ve given a kind of carte blanche. Now, if they are penitent they ought to be the ones who pay the price of that penitence. But the price is being paid by the Palestinians,” Tutu told David Frost in a 2011 Al Jazeera interview with President Jimmy Carter.

“Part of my own concern for what is happening there is in fact not what is happening to the Palestinians, but it is what the Israelis are doing to themselves,” Tutu added. “I mean, when you go to those checkpoints, and you see these young soldiers behaving abominably badly, they are not aware that when you carry out dehumanizing policies, whether you like it or not, quite inexorably those policies dehumanize the perpetrator.”

Further, Archbishop Tutu spoke out for environmental justice and against climate change, calling for an “apartheid-style boycott to save the planet” and lobbying President Obama to stop the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S.

I had the privilege of seeing Archbishop Tutu speak during the apartheid era. The year was 1986, and I was a sophomore at Harvard University when he came to the Kennedy School to speak about the state of apartheid and the movement against the South African regime. The anti-apartheid movement was in full force in America, including the student effort at institutions such as Harvard to divest from the white supremacist regime. I sat in the second row with a few of my friends—we had waited hours in the cold for tickets—right behind his family members, who were in attendance.

He cited the role of “people power” and the anti-apartheid movement on college campuses in changing the game, pushing the U.S. Congress to vote on sanctions against South Africa. Congress passed sanctions later that year.

“When—as you have been doing—you support the struggle for justice for peace for reconciliation, then the victims of apartheid—that vicious, evil, immoral system—have their morale boosted so that your impact is a positive one on the victims of apartheid. And they say people care, the world cares, and therefore our cause must be just. Our cause is a noble cause, and our cause will prevail in the end despite all appearances to the contrary,” Tutu said in his address.

“And it has a negative impact on the perpetrators of apartheid—what you do and what you say—if it is in support of justice and peace and reconciliation. For the perpetrators of an evil system will find ways of seeking to discredit you. Because as the only answer they will have to the truth, they can’t match up your truth, your justice, your goodness with their own. And so, they use the old ploy of ‘you are communist inspired’—and you know it’s made a difference.”

As one who would later become a human rights activist and advocate for social and racial justice, I was inspired by this man. Archbishop Tutu had a giant spirit, a man of God who spoke truth to power and showed us the way to stand up for the human dignity of all people. It is the path few travel because it is not a place of comfort and safety.

Seventeen years later, as a law student at the University of Pennsylvania, I had the good fortune to literally walk into Archbishop Tutu on campus. He had come to give the university commencement address. I shook his hand, told him what a pleasure it was to speak with him and thanked him for what he had done.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” Tutu once said. As we confront the present-day struggles against structures of injustice, white supremacy and white minority rule, we need the spirit of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Rest in power.

David A. Love is a journalist and commentator who writes investigative stories and op-eds on a variety of issues, including politics, social justice, human rights, race, criminal justice and inequality. Love is also an adjunct instructor at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, where he trains students in a social justice journalism lab. In addition to his journalism career, Love has worked as an advocate and leader in the nonprofit sector, served as a legislative aide, and as a law clerk to two federal judges. He holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Harvard University, and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He also completed the Joint Programme in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. His portfolio website is davidalove.com.

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