The Interconnected Lives of Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Albert Luthuli, and Nelson Mandela

Joe Colletti, PhD
September, 2017 

The appalling assassinations of two accomplished advocates, Martin Luther King, Jr. (died April 4, 1968) and Robert F. Kennedy (died June 6, 1968) happened nearly 50 years ago (click here). Connecting their achievements and actions to the present, and the achievements and actions of other social reformers such as Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela, serve as a reminder how others can come together today to help solve social struggles, which is the purpose of the Hub for Social Reformers (click here).

 

The lives of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Albert Luthuli, and Nelson Mandela are interwoven forever because of the anti-apartheid events that heightened in the 1960s that helped end the system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa just over 20 years ago.  

Albert Luthuli 

Albert Luthuli (c. 1898 – 21 July 1967), also known by his Zulu name Mvumbi, was awarded the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the non-violent struggle against apartheid. The first such award was given in 1901. Luthuli was the first African, and the first person from outside Europe and the Americas, to receive this prestigious award.  

Towards the very end of his acceptance speech, he described once again his vision for South Africa and all of Africa  

“Still licking the scars of past wrongs perpetrated on her, could she not be magnanimous and practise no revenge? Her hand of friendship scornfully rejected, her pleas for justice and fair-play spurned, should she not nonetheless seek to turn enmity into amity? Though robbed of her lands, her independence and opportunities - this, oddly enough, often in the name of civilization and even Christianity, should she not see her destiny as being that of making a distinctive contribution to human progress and human relationships with a peculiar new African flavour enriched by the diversity of cultures she enjoys, thus building on the summits of present human achievement an edifice that would be one of the finest tributes to the genius of man? She should see this hour of her fulfilment as a challenge to her to labour on until she is purged of racial domination, and as an opportunity of reassuring the world that her national aspiration lies, not in overthrowing white domination to replace it by a black caste, but in building a non-racial democracy that shall be a monumental brotherhood, a "brotherly community" with none discriminated against on grounds of race or colour.” 

To read the entire speech click here. 

A couple of years later, Luthuli published his autobiography, which is entitled “Let My People Go.”  

            Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) issued a joint statement with Luthuli on December 10, 1962 known as an “Appeal for Action against Apartheid," which publically linked the Civil Rights Movement in the United States with the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa. December 10, 1965 is known as Human Rights Day because the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. 

To read the entire statement click here. 

MLK en route to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, gave a speech in London on December 7, 1964. He began his speech by acknowledging Luthuli  

“In our struggle for freedom and justice in the United States, which has also been so long and arduous, we feel a powerful sense of identification with those in the far more deadly struggle for freedom in South Africa. We know how Africans there, and their friends of other races, strove for half a century to win their freedom by non-violent methods. We have honoured Chief Luthuli for his leadership, and we know how this non-violence was only met by increasing violence from the state, increasing repression, culminating in the shootings of Sharpeville and all that has happened since.” 

He also acknowledged Nelson Mandela: 

“Today great leaders - Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe - are among many hundreds wasting away in Robben Island prison (off the western coast of South Africa).”

He ended his speech by declaring

"Though we in the civil rights movement still have a long and difficult struggle in our own country, increasingly we are recognizing our power as voters; already we have made our feelings clear to the President; increasingly we intend to influence American policy in the United Nations and towards South Africa.”

To read the entire speech click here. 

About a year later, MLK delivered a speech at Hunter College (CUNY), New York entitled “Let My People Go,” which focused on United States policy towards South Africa and occurred on December 10 (Human Rights Day), 1965 less than six months before Robert F. Kennedy’s visit to South Africa. 

MLK ended his powerful speech with 

“The powerful unity of (Black) with (Black) and white with (Black) is stronger than the most potent and entrenched racism. The whole human race will benefit when it ends the abomination that has diminished the stature of (humanity) for too long. This is the task to which we are called by the suffering in South Africa, and our response should be swift and unstinting. Out of this struggle will come the glorious reality of the family of (humanity).” 

To read the entire speech click here. 

            Robert F. Kennedy 

Robert F. Kennedy’s (RFK) five-day trip to South Africa was from June 4th to the 9th, 1966. He was invited by the anti-apartheid National Union of South African Students to give the Annual Day of Affirmation Speech, which was held that year at the University of Cape Town. 

Speaking before the large crowd filled with youth, he asserted 

“In your faculties and councils, here in this very audience, are hundreds and thousands of men who could transform the lives of millions for all time to come.” 

A little later in his speech he also asserted 

“This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. It is a revolutionary world we live in, and thus, as I have said in Latin America and Asia, in Europe and in the United States, it is young people who must take the lead. Thus you, and your young compatriots everywhere, have had thrust upon you a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.” 

During his South Africa visit, RFK visited Luthuli who was living under house arrest in relative obscurity in Groutville. Luthuli could not be quoted or photographed though a photo of the two of them was later published. There is no detailed account of what was said between the two. RFK did, however, describe what was said during the visit to the media. Also, during his visit to Soweto the next day, he told the thousands of people who lined the streets of Soweto about his meeting with Luthuli, which was the first news that some had heard about Luthuli since his house arrest. 

Nelson Mandela 

The lives on Nelson Mandela and Albert Luthuli were interwoven as the result of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. When Luthuli was elected President of the African National Congress (ANC), which had become the nation’s leading anti-apartheid voice, Nelson Mandela was elected Deputy-President. When the ANC launched its Defiance Campaign in June, 1952, which called for an end to the national Party’s policies of apartheid, Mandela and Luthuli were banned from public speaking and confined to the areas in which they lived.  

A few years later, when the ANC released its anti-apartheid Freedom Charter, Mandela and Luthuli were charged with treason. Luthuli was imprisoned for a short while. The charges against him were dropped, though he remained confined to the area in which he lived and banned from public speaking. 

Mandela , who first went underground, was ultimately brought to trial and imprisoned for nearly 28 years until he was released from prison in 1990 and became President of South Africa in 1994 through 1999, which marked the end of apartheid. 

Mandela never met Martin Luther King, Jr or Robert F. Kennedy. He was in prison when both of them were assassinated. Mandela, Luthuli, and King shared one prestigious experience—all three of them were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  

What all four of them shared in common, was the vision and desire to live in a society in which all persons lived in harmony and with equal opportunities. While all four of them were still alive, Mandela gave a three-hour speech at the outset of the trial that ultimately led to his imprisonment, though many feared he would be sentenced to death. The following is one of the well-known quotes from the speech, which echoed the speeches of Luthuli, King, and Kennedy: 

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

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