Albert John Luthuli, also known as Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli, was a Zulu chief, teacher, and religious leader who served as president of the African National Congress between 1952 and 1960 in South Africa. He was born in 1898 near Bulawayo, Rhodesia, which is the present day in Zimbabwe. He died on July 21, 1967, in Stanger, South Africa.
In recognition of his nonviolent struggle against racial discrimination, he was the first African to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (1960).
The Early Life of Luthuli and Education
Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli was born in Rhodesia, where his father, a missionary interpreter named John Bunyan Luthuli, had relocated to. After his father died, Albert, then ten years old, returned to South Africa and lived with his uncle, the chief of Groutville, a village affiliated with an American Congregational mission in N.Z. There, he learned Zulu customs and duties.
He graduated from the American Board Mission’s teacher-training college at Adams, near Durban, and became one of its first three African teachers, thanks to his mother’s earnings as a washerwoman and a scholarship. Luthuli married Nokukhanya Bhengu, a teacher and clan chief’s granddaughter, in 1927.
Luthuli’s Teaching and Political Career
Luthuli left teaching in 1936 to become the elected chief of Groutville, a village of 5000 people. Despite being faced with land hunger, poverty, and a lack of political speech, he did not understand the need for political action.
He was secretary of the Natal African Teachers’ Association and the South African Football Association during those early years. Also, he was the founder of the Zulu Language and Cultural Society and a member of the Christian Council Executive, the Joint Council of Europeans and Africans, and the Institute of Race Relations in Durban.
Luthuli’s first political move, joining the African National Congress in 1945, was inspired by friendship with Natal chief Nelson Mandela. Even more important was his election to the Natives Representative Council in 1946, at a time when troops and police were suppressing an African miners’ strike, which cost eight lives.
Luthuli immediately joined his people in their outrage at the council’s ineffectiveness. When he visited the United States in 1948 as a guest of the Congregational Board of Missions, he cautioned that racial prejudice would put Christianity to the ultimate test in Africa. When he returned home, he discovered that the Afrikaner Nationalists had recently taken power and implemented an apartheid policy.
Luthuli was elected president of the Natal African National Congress at this critical time. The ANC’s attempts to gain human rights by deputation, petition, or mass demonstrations had been met with growing repression since its founding in 1912. In 1952, the ANC joined the South African Indian Congress in a countrywide movement to overturn unjust laws sparked by young black intellectuals.
The government requested that Luthuli resign from the ANC or his chieftainship due to his leadership in Natal.
“The way to freedom is through the cross,” he said, refusing to do either.
The government deposed him. Not only did he retain his affectionate title of “lord,” but his prestige grew. In the same year, 1952, he was elected President General of the African National Congress. Hence between repeated bans (under the Suppression of Communism Act), he went to rallies, visited towns, and toured the country to speak to large crowds.
Luthuli’s Arrest and Release
Luthuli and 155 others were apprehended and charged with high treason in December 1956. After a lengthy trial that failed to establish treason, a communist plot, or crime, he was released in 1957. During this time, Luthuli’s quiet authority and ability to inspire others deeply influenced distinguished international observers, leading to his Nobel Prize nomination.
In 1957, he called for a stay-at-home strike, which drew many nonwhites; later, whites started to attend his mass meetings. Two years later, the government imprisoned him for “promoting feelings of animosity” between races in his rural neighborhood and barred him from gatherings for five years.
Luthuli called for national mourning and burned his pass after police killed or injured more than 250 Africans protesting the pass laws in Sharpeville in 1960. He paid a fine because he was too sick to complete the resulting jail term. The ANC and its rival, the Pan-Africanist Congress, were declared illegal by the government.
Luthuli was able to leave Groutville for a short time in December 1961, when he traveled to Oslo with his wife to accept the Nobel Prize. In his acceptance speech, he praised his people’s nonviolence and rejection of bigotry in the face of adversity while also emphasizing how far they were from freedom despite their long struggle.
After one week, the ANC’s newly formed military army, Umkhonto we Sizwe, i.e., “Spear of the Nation,” targeted military installations across South Africa. The nonviolence policy had finally been abandoned, and Luthuli was a respected elder statesman, dictating his autobiography and receiving only those visitors approved by the police. Chief Luthuli was killed by a train on July 21, 1967, as he made a routine crossing of a railway bridge near his small farm.