Remembering Desmond Tutu

Students learn about and reflect on the life and values of the activist and thinker Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died on December 26, 2021. 



Invite students to reflect on the following statement:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Option 1: Send around a talking piece inviting students to share out their thoughts or feelings as they contemplate the idea of neutrality in situations of oppression.

Option 2: Have students share out their thoughts or feelings in pairs or small groups instead. When they are back in the full group, invite a few volunteers to share their thoughts and feelings, keeping in mind that confidentiality applies to personal stories they may have heard from their partner.

 At Morningside Center, we encourage the learning to travel, while the personal stories stay confidential – unless, of course, we have permission from the storyteller to share their stories.

Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Tutu at a climate justice rally in 2011 in Durban, South Africa. Photo by Kristen Opalinski.


Who is This Person?

Explain that you’re now going to hear some biographical information about the person who made that statement about oppression and neutrality – a hero of human rights and justice in his own country and around the world. 

Explain that you’ll read out the information in four phases (see below) as you invite your students to contemplate this person’s life and consider who it might be.

Consider asking for volunteers who can each read out loud one phase of this person’s life and/or a volunteer per bullet. Ask students to read slowly so everyone can take in the information. This handout contains the Phase 1-4 facts and quotes. 

Invite students who think they know (at any point) who the person is to write down the person’s name and continue listening. That way, they can:

  • make sure they are thinking of the right person, and
  • learn more about this person’s amazing life.

Phase 1: Early years

  • This person was born in 1931.
  • Though he wanted to become a doctor, he trained as a teacher because his family couldn’t afford medical school.
  • After three years of teaching high school, he began to study theology. 
  • He was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church 1960. 
  • From 1962 to 1966, he studied theology in England, where he graduated with a master’s degree.
  • In the 1970s, he was Bishop of Lesotho (pronounced “luh·soo·too”) and in 1978 he became the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches.
  • His advocacy for equal rights was not well-received by his government, so they revoked his passport to prevent him from traveling and speaking abroad.

He said: “Inclusive, good-quality education is a foundation for dynamic and equitable societies.”

Pause. As the teacher, do the following:

  • Without giving away who the person is, invite some student thoughts, feelings, reflections, or connections about the man we’re talking about today.
  • Ask for a show of hands to see how many students think they know who you’re talking about, but don’t give it away just yet.

Phase 2: Fighting Apartheid

  • Noting the inferior education that Blacks were subjected to, this person left teaching in a quest to improve the lives of Black people in his country.
  • As a leader in the Anglican church, he now had a platform to publicly denounce the system that reigned his country – apartheid – as being evil and un-Christian. 
  • He called for equal rights for all citizens of his country and an equal system of education.
  • He became well-known for fighting apartheid in his own country and struggling for human rights globally.
  • His fight with his government drew international attention, so he got his passport back.
  • As a bishop in the apartheid era, with police brutality roiling the country, this person attended many (Black) township funerals, where he continued to preach for peace. 
  • He denounced violence and once courageously put himself between angry young mourners at a funeral and a man accused of being an apartheid collaborator, saving the man’s life.
  • In 1984, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end apartheid.
  • The award helped to pave the way for stricter economic sanctions against his country in the 1980s, which he had been calling for.

He said: “I’m not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master.  I want the full menu of rights.”

Pause. As the teacher, do the following:

  • Without giving away who the person is, invite some student thoughts, feelings, reflections, or connections about the man we’re talking about today.
  • Ask for a show of hands to see how many students think they know who you’re talking about, but don’t give it away just yet.

Phase 3: Truth and Reconciliation

  • At the time of his appointment as the Archbishop of Cape Town, this person was in Atlanta, Georgia, receiving the Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize.
  • “Wow, yippee!” this person shouted after voting at age 62 in South Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994.
  • A month later, he introduced Nelson Mandela as his country’s first Black president.
  • A year later, he was appointed by Nelson Mandela’s Government of National Unity to chair his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). 
  • With this person at the helm, the TRC was to investigate past human rights abuses committed by both pro and anti-apartheid groups.
  • Between 1996 and 1998, some of the darkest days of apartheid brutality were re-lived in a public way, at a series of hearings that this person held around the country.
  • It was "a space within which victims could share the story of their trauma with the nation," this person would later write in the commission's seven-volume report.
  • Though many disagreed, he insisted that one should not think of justice as only punitive in nature.
  • Unlike the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders, this person and his 14 fellow commissioners gathered "not to judge the morality of people's actions, but to act as an incubation chamber for national healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness."
  • In 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report about crimes and atrocities that occurred in South Africa during apartheid. This person continued his fight for justice long after.

He said: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

Pause.  As the teacher, do the following:

  • Without giving away who the person is, invite some student thoughts, feelings, reflections, or connections about the man we’re talking about today.
  • Ask for a show of hands to see how many students think they know who you’re talking about, but don’t give it away just yet.

Phase 4: Continued Activism

  • As the years progressed, this person became more distant from South African’s post-apartheid governing party, the African National Congress (ANC). He criticized ANC officials for focusing on personal gain while much of the country still lived in poverty.
  • He was quoted at a memorial service for members of the ANC’s apartheid-era armed wing in Cape Town: “Do you remember the price that was paid for our freedom? … We had some fantastic young people. They paid a very heavy price. We all paid a very heavy price. And for what? So some of us can have three motorcars?”
  • He spoke out even when his stance it collided with institutions that were close to his heart. 
  • This person became one of the world’s most prominent religious leaders to champion LGBTQ rights.
  • He continued his activism in retirement in campaigns against HIV/AIDs, tuberculosis, poverty, racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, corruption in politics, and the occupation of Palestine, among others.
  • He was a passionate climate activist, recognizing how climate change will greatly affect present and future generations. 
  • He died on December 26, 2021, at the age of 90. He was seen as South Africa’s moral compass but always maintained his humility. He would tell people to call him Arch.
  • In keeping with the humility he’d shown in life, this person didn't want any lavish spending on his funeral and requested the cheapest coffin available. he wanted to be cremated privately and his ashes interred in the cathedral.

He said: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

Pause. As the teacher, do the following:

  • Without giving away who the person is, invite some student thoughts, feelings, reflections, or connections about the man we’re talking about today.
  • Ask some volunteers to share who it is they think we’ve been talking about.  If they guessed right, ask them to explain what information it was that made them realize it was Desmond Tutu, or Tata (father) as he was fondly known in South Africa. 

South Africa’s Civil Rights Hero Dies at 90

Show this 4:11 minute Guardian video clip of Archbishop Tutu in action: Desmond Tutu in his own words: ‘He loved, he laughed, he cried'. Note: The clip includes some images of violence that you should consider letting your students know about ahead of time. 

Now that they’ve seen the Arch (which is what he told people to call him) in action ask students:

  • Do you want to add anything to your earlier reflections? 

Have students consider some of Archbishop Tutu’s words below in particular. Invite them to to share and discuss their thoughts and feelings, possibly making personal connections if they have any:

  • In the video, Tutu talks about change in the following way: “the sea is actually made up of drops of water … what you do, where you are, is of significance. It may just be that your act of courage encourages someone else who was slightly more apprehensive.”
  • “I held on to nonviolence in very large measure for strategic reasons. If we went the way of the armed struggle, we probably wouldn’t stand too much of a chance against a government that was armed to the teeth.”
  • “I did get to the point of saying, I am not a pacifist, but that I was a peace lover and peace advocate.”
  • “Because of the conflict of the past no matter on which side we stood, we all stand in need of healing.”
  • Tutu wanted to be remembered in the following way: “He loved, he laughed, he cried, he was forgiven, he forgave.”  Based on our discussion so far today, how successful do you think he was?

Alternative clips about Desmond Tutu:

PBS NewsHour (5:54 minutes):

CNN (3:04 minutes): Look back at the life of Archbishop Desmond Tutu


At Desmond Tutu’s funeral, anti-apartheid-struggle activist and former politician Cheryl Carolus called on South Africans to keep striving for a better democracy. She said:

“Freedom is not a spectator sport, it needs to be hands on…. Tata, we will pick up your baton,” she said, using Desmond Tutu’s nickname. “We give thanks for having 90 years of our father, almost against all odds.”

Ask students, in honor of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s fight for freedom in South Africa and around the world:

  • What is one way you could see us picking up the baton in our school or community as we seek to promote what Desmond Tutu embodied and fought for his whole life?

Extension Activities  

Use today’s lesson as a jumping off point for comparisons between the struggle for freedom in South Africa and the struggle for freedom, equity, and justice, in this country.

Consider using some of the materials below, which draw on the words and reflections of American lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson. Or draw from the many other resources you will find when you start to research this topic (with your students).

According to Archbishop Tutu in an interview with journalist David Frost on Al Jazeera:

“If you do not deal with a dark past such as ours, effectively look the beast in the eye, that beast is not going to lie down quietly, it's going as sure as anything to come back to haunt you horrendously.”  

In this country, lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson agrees, which is why he led the creation in this country of two highly acclaimed cultural sites that opened in 2018: the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  These new national landmark institutions chronicle the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation, and the connection to mass incarceration and contemporary issues of racial bias.  

Bryan Stevenson talks about truth-telling in the following way:

“I think every entity, every institution has to commit to this process of truth-telling. I think it’s local, it’s intimate, it’s familial, it’s communal, it’s statewide, it’s nationwide.  I keep stressing the truth because I think it’s really important that people understand that if you’re genuinely engaged in recovering from human rights abuses, you have to commit to truth-telling first.  You can’t jump to reconciliation, you can’t jump to reparation, you can’t jump to restoration until you tell the truth.  Until you know the nature of the injuries, you can’t actually speak to the kind of remedies that are going to be necessary.”

Bryan Stevenson on How America can Heal: A Conversation about Truth and Reconciliation in the U.S.
Interview with Ezra Klein on the Vox media podcast network, a segment of which is transcribed below.

Ezra Klein: “What is healthy relationship for society to have with its own history?"

Bryan Stevenson:

 “If you don’t know your history, you can’t really begin to understand what your obligations are, what your responsibilities are, what you should fear, what you should celebrate, what’s honorable and what’s not honorable.

The big problem we have in the United States is that we don’t actually know our history. We don’t know about the centuries of racial injustice. We don’t know about the native genocide. You say “native genocide” and people have no idea what you’re talking about. They think you’re saying something radical.

Once you know that history, you begin to think differently about who we are. We got comfortable with creating a Constitution that talks about equality and justice for all, but didn’t apply to millions of Indigenous people who were on this land. And so until you understand that history, you can’t begin thinking about, well, what are your responsibilities now? What are your obligations now? What would it take to recover from that kind of violence, that kind of destruction that we did to millions of Indigenous people?

And, of course, that failure to acknowledge that history is what makes us vulnerable to the two-and-a-half centuries of slavery that follow. We’ve invested a lot of time in creating false narratives about slavery, about enslavers, about the South, about the North, about emancipation, about abolitionists — many of whom didn’t believe in slavery but also didn’t believe in racial equality. And the legacy of that is very different than the legacy we’ve been taught.

So for me, it begins with honesty. If you’ve done something wrong to someone else and you genuinely don’t know what you’ve done wrong, you’re not going to be able to fully reconcile with that person. You’re not going to be able to adequately apologize. You’re not going to be able to say the things you need to say to create a path toward recovery. You have to know what you did. And once you understand what you did, you can then begin to calibrate all the things that have to happen for you to try to make peace. For you to recover. To create fellowship again.

We have committed ourselves in this country to silence about our history, to ignorance about our history, to denying our history. And that’s the first part of this relationship that has to be repaired. We’ve got to be willing now to talk honestly about who we are and how we got here.”


Also see:

Ted Talk Video with Bryan Stevenson: The urgent need for reconciliation in the United States

Article by Yeukai Mukorombindo, published on Global Integrity: Towards More Racially Just Societies: Learnings from South Africa,