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As he traveled the globe in the 1980s to spark a movement forcing the South Africa government to end its racist policy of apartheid, Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, who died Sunday at 90 years old, made a pivotal stop in Philadelphia.
Tutu, who would soon become an archbishop, gave a January 1986 speech at the University of Pennsylvania. Part of a whirlwind tour with a dozen U.S. stops, his Martin Luther King Memorial Address reverberated around the nation.
Nine months later, in an effort co-helmed by Philly U.S. Rep. William Gray, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act to levy sanctions against South Africa.
Apartheid wouldn’t officially end until the 1990s, but passage of the act was a milestone in Tutu’s efforts to dismantle the segregation of races in his home country. Protests at colleges were considered key drivers of the movement.
Tutu referenced this student activism in his January speech at Penn, which you can listen to in full at the Fresh Air Archives.
“I came to this country in May of last year and visited a number of campuses … at a time when normally on campuses people are virtually obsessed with exams and grades and degrees” Tutu said, addressing what was reported as an over-capacity crowd of 3,000 in a 2,250-seat auditorium.
“I would speak to audiences of 15,000 students [gathered] to demonstrate, to protest, against the evil of apartheid,” he continued in his famously straightforward style. “They were saying, ‘There are some things more important than degrees.’ ”
A few days earlier, Tutu received an honorary law degree from Temple University, which had in late 1985 divested $2.75 million in stock from companies doing business with South Africa.
But Penn had yet to act, according to university archives.
In his speech at the auditorium, Tutu didn’t directly urge divestment — at the time, it was illegal for South African citizens to do so — though he did reportedly speak privately with university trustees, who were slated to vote on the issue later that week.
Students had been pressuring the school to divest for years. In October 1985, for example, the Penn Anti-Apartheid Coalition held a round-the-clock vigil outside a board meeting. This dedication to the cause excited Tutu, who in his January speech compared it to the anti-war movement of the 1960s, only more impressive.
“You see, in the Vietnam situation, there was a fair degree of self-interest,” Tutu told the crowd at Penn. “They were talking about Americans, and they were also perhaps a little concerned that they might be drafted into the Army. … But on this occasion, young people were being concerned with something with which they needn’t have been concerned. They were caring about the human family.”
Three days after that speech, according to the New York Times, UPenn trustees voted to wait at least 18 months before pulling $92 million invested with companies doing business with South Africa.
Student protests continued. A few months later, activists held a die-in outside a board meeting, and that summer the University of Pennsylvania was one of several campuses that saw “occupy”-style shanties erected to urge South African divestment.
Representative Gray, who as pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church hosted Tutu during the January visit, showed up at some of the student rallies in Philadelphia. He sponsored the House bill calling for U.S. sanctions, and delivered the Democratic response to President Ronald Reagan’s veto after it was passed by both chambers.
Reagan’s veto was eventually overridden, and the act passed into law in October 1986. It would take another year for Penn to fully divest.
Over the next couple of decades, Tutu expanded his activism to encompass the fight for racial justice and LGBTQ rights. In 2003, he visited Penn again to receive an honorary degree and give its 247th commencement speech.
He urged students in Philadelphia to continue fighting for their ideals.
“And so you and I will be those who protest when nations spend obscene amounts on budgets of death and destruction,” Tutu said, according to a university transcript, “when we know that a small fraction of this will enable our sisters and brothers everywhere to have enough clean water to drink, enough food to eat, enough proper education and healthcare that is affordable.”
According to the trust set up in his and his wife’s Leah’s name, Tutu died peacefully at the Oasis Frail Care Center in Cape Town.