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Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Memphis connection

For those fortunate enough to have been in the presence of Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, South Africa’s iconic symbol of human rights and the struggle against apartheid, a few such moments with him had staying power.

Tutu, the winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, died on Sunday, Dec. 26. He was 90.

In 1992, Tutu, the former Bishop of Johannesburg (1985-86) and the Archbishop of Cape Town (1986-96), was in Memphis, taking in salutes and tributes as the winner of a Freedom Award bestowed that year by the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM).

“The world has lost a champion of truth and reconciliation, a strong warrior in the fight for justice,” the NCRM posted via its social media network after word arrived of Archbishop Tutu’s passing.

“Our lives are forever changed by his cheerful goodwill, kind candor, and audacious empathy. Rest well, Archbishop Tutu, good and faithful servant. Thank you for your purest forms of love in action.”

Dr. Willie W. Herenton had just become the first African American elected mayor of Memphis when Tutu made his way to the Bluff City.

“I had the privilege and honor to greet Bishop Tutu when he was honored in Memphis,” Herenton recalled in a conversation with The New Tri-State Defender on Wednesday.

“He was a man who stood tall on respect and humanity for all people. I admired his courage and strength.”

An even stronger connection between Memphis and Tutu was established when two local civil rights leaders traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa to convene with African leaders on strategies to defeat apartheid. 

Pastor Samuel “Billy” Kyles, the late renowned pastor of Monumental Baptist Church, and Apostle Bill Adkins, pastor of Greater Imani Church, Cathedral of Faith, encouraged Tutu and other African leaders in their fight.

Adkins had insightful recollections on the time he and Kyles spent in Johannesburg.

“I had the great honor of meeting Bishop Tutu in Johannesburg, South Africa. Billy Kyles and I went over there in 1993. This was still during the time of apartheid,” said Adkins. “We went over to meet with Black leaders to talk with them about the workings of democracy and to show them how we organized our civil rights movement.

“It was a fascinating experience, he was a fascinating man, and it was a fascinating time to be in the country,” Adkins recalled. “I met with him at his church. We were introduced by Winnie Mandela. That time with the Bishop was life-changing and memorable.

“At the time that Bishop Tutu and I spoke, he had already endured much suffering. But, he was able to foster a peace between Blacks and whites, while the country continued to make progress in race relations. He was humble and engaging,” said Adkins.

“Bishop Tutu was a great man; a man of great vision and a man of great optimism. I will value that experience always.

After apartheid, Archbishop Tutu challenged social issues, including discrimination against homosexuals, combatting the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and international war crimes. He also spoke out to encourage free trade with poorer countries and affordable access to anti-AIDS drugs.  

In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Even after retirement in 2010, he remained engaged in human rights issues such as eradicating poverty, LGBTQ rights and climate change.


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