Influential professor illuminates life of Albert Luthuli

March 6, 2015

On Thursday, March 5, the African and Afro-American Studies Department hosted a lecture by Dr. Robert Vinson titled “Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela and the Genealogies of Armed Struggle in Apartheid South Africa.” A professor in the AAAS Department introduced Vinson and the lecture, which is part of the annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture, and the lecture was followed by a short question-and-answer session.

The lecture was established in 1985 through the generous donation of Rose Schiff, Eileen Schiff Wingard and Zina Schiff Eisenberg in memory of their daughter and sister Louise Joy Schiff. Since then, every year the African and Afro-American Studies Department hosts a lecture on black liberation in southern Africa. It is named after Ruth First, a white South African who dedicated her life to eliminating apartheid in the country. Born to members of the Communist Party, First became a journalist and reported for The Guardian, but because of the radical nature of the paper itself and First’s writings and outspoken nature, she was exiled to Mozambique and eventually assassinated.

First’s husband, Joe Slavo, was one of the co-founders of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which means “Spear the Nation” in English with Nelson Mandela. MK was a wing of the African National Congress (ANC), which was led by Albert Luthuli. Vinson began his lecture by asking the audience if we had ever heard of Luthuli, to which a few responded affirmatively by raising their hands. Vinson then presented us with a brief overview of what his lecture would consist of: drawing a connection between Luthuli and Nelson Mandela with a focus on the time period before Mandela became the renowned activist he is considered today—what Vinson called “Mandela before Mandela.”

First, Vinson spoke about Apartheid, which means “apartness” in Afrikaans. He referred to Apartheid as a more “heightened form” of the Jim Crow laws in the post-Civil War South. Vinson went on to say that rather than a form of fascism, some members of the white South African minority believed Apartheid to be the “solution to the problem of racial integration and proximity that would lead to competition and conflict.” This solution was reached through a series of acts passed by the government that gradually stripped the rights of the black majority.

Elaborating on what he mentioned only briefly at the beginning of his speech, Vinson returned to the life of Albert Luthuli. His focus, however, was on Luthuli’s pacifism, which was displayed in the form of ANC nonviolent civil-disobedience tactics. Vinson’s intensity increased when he began to speak about one of the government’s responses to these tactics. He describes the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre where many unarmed protesters were shot and killed, most in the back as they fled the scene, while numerous more were injured.

It was after this event, Vinson said, that the ANC began discussing a change in their policy from non-violent to violent. It was also during this time that Mandela gave his first public speech since 1952 and “when Mandela really became Mandela,” as Vinson stated in his lecture. Mandela grew to be the leader of MK, which promoted an armed struggle against the current regime, and Luthuli continued to lead the ANC with nonviolence. During this point in the lecture Vinson had on a slide of his PowerPoint the following quote: “No one can blame brave, just men for seeking justice by the use of violent methods, nor could they be blamed if they tried to create an organized force in order to ultimately establish peace and racial harmony.” Luthuli said this, perfectly encompassing the competing ideas Vinson was speaking about.

The last point that Vinson touched upon before he concluded his talk was the connection between Martin Luther King, Jr. and South Africa. King was very interested in and engaged with the issues going on in South Africa and followed them very closely. According to Vinson, King made a connection between what was happening in South Africa and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. He said that it was part of the same struggle.

Vinson paraphrases King in his opinion that “there was a global color line and in order to erase that global color line you had to have a global campaign against all forms of injustice, racial and economic.” King, as well as Mandela, used the ideas Luthuli came up with in both of their movements and yet Luthuli is largely forgotten in the public mind today. In his concluding thoughts, Vinson stresses the fact that “Nelson Mandela evolved into a Luthuli-like figure,” and that ideas flow in “two-way traffic” between people. Vinson expressed his gratitude to his audience for listening before opening up for questions and comments, both of which he received.

Robert Vinson is the Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. He received his Ph.D. in African History from Howard University and is in the process of publishing his next book, “Before Mandela, Like A King: The Prophetic Politics of Chief Albert Luthuli” which is scheduled to be released sometime this year. The topic of his book re-emphasizes Vinson’s great interest and enthusiasm for this subject, which was evident in his lecture.

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