Desmond Tutu, October 1931-December 2021

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Tutu and Gore smiling and shaking hands
Archbishop Desmond Tutu greets Vice President Al Gore, May 10, 1994 (NAID 24717040)

Bishop Desmond Tutu died on December 26, 2021.  He was best known for his human rights and nonviolence activities while the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg and then the archbishop of Cape Town, the first Black person to hold either position.  Tutu was a hero of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, chair of the post-apartheid South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, awardee of the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and possessor of one of the greatest laughs ever.

As you might expect, Bishop Tutu shows up in Department of State records.  Here are three examples.


In September 1977, Bishop Tutu spoke at the funeral of Stephen Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist who had been brutally murdered by South African security forces that month.  Tutu officiated at the funeral mass and gave the sermon, “an eloquent and restrained message.”


Even though he was a man of the cloth, Bishop Tutu recognized the connection between human rights conditions in South Africa and the political/economic situation there.  He was not averse to commenting.


In 1979, during the Iran Hostage Crisis, Bishop Tutu issued a statement calling on Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini to release the American hostages, noting that holding the hostages lost sympathy for the Iranian cause.  His statement had no effect on the outcome.


Sources:  Telegrams 1977PRETOR05076, 1978JOHANN01785, and 1979PRETOR10730, all from the Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-79/Electronic Telegrams, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

The Rediscovering Black History blog also covers the life and records relating to Bishop Desmond Tutu.

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