JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning icon, an uncompromising foe of the country’s past racist policy of apartheid and a modern-day activist for racial justice and LGBT rights, died Sunday at 90.
Throughout the 1980s — when South Africa was gripped by a state of emergency giving police and the military sweeping powers — Tutu was one of the most prominent Black leaders able to speak out against abuses.
A lively wit lightened Tutu’s hard-hitting messages and warmed otherwise grim protests, funerals and marches. Short, plucky, tenacious, he was a formidable force, and apartheid leaders learned not to discount his canny talent for quoting apt scriptures to harness righteous support for change.
The Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 highlighted his stature as one of the world’s most effective champions for human rights, a responsibility he took seriously for the rest of his life.
With the end of apartheid and South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Tutu celebrated the country’s multi-racial society, calling it a “rainbow nation,” a phrase that captured the heady optimism of the moment.
Tutu also campaigned internationally for human rights, especially LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.
“I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this,” he said in 2013, launching a campaign for LGBT rights in Cape Town. “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say, ‘Sorry, I would much rather go to the other place.’”
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born Oct. 7, 1931, in Klerksdorp, west of Johannesburg, and became a teacher before entering St. Peter’s Theological College in Rosetenville in 1958 for training as a priest. He was ordained in 1961 and six years later became chaplain at the University of Fort Hare.
Moves to the tiny southern African kingdom of Lesotho and to Britain followed, with Tutu returning home in 1975. He became bishop of Lesotho, chairman of the South African Council of Churches and, in 1985 the first Black Anglican bishop of Johannesburg and then in 1986, the first Black archbishop of Cape Town. He ordained women priests and promoted gay priests.
Tutu was arrested in 1980 for taking part in a protest and later had his passport confiscated for the first time. He got it back for trips to the United States and Europe, where he held talks with the U.N. secretary-general, the pope and other church leaders.
Tutu called for international sanctions against South Africa and talks to end the conflict.
In July 2015, Tutu renewed his 1955 wedding vows with wife Leah. The Tutus’ four children and other relatives surrounded the elderly couple in a church ceremony.
“You can see that we followed the biblical injunction: We multiplied and we’re fruitful,” Tutu told the congregation. “But all of us here want to say thank you … We knew that without you, we are nothing.”
Tutu is survived by his wife of 66 years and their four children.
Asked once how he wanted to be remembered, he told The Associated Press: “He loved. He laughed. He cried. He was forgiven. He forgave. Greatly privileged.”