Albert John Luthuli, in full Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli, Luthuli also spelled Lutuli, (born 1898, near Bulawayo, Rhodesia [now in Zimbabwe]—died July 21, 1967, Stanger, S.Af.), Zulu chief, teacher and religious leader, and president of the African National Congress (1952–60) in South Africa.
He was the first African to be awarded a Nobel Prize for Peace (1960), in recognition of his nonviolent struggle against racial discrimination.
Albert John Mvumbi (Zulu: “Continuous Rain”) Luthuli was born in Rhodesia, where his father, John Bunyan Luthuli, a missionary interpreter, had gone from Zululand. After his father’s death, the 10-year-old Albert returned to South Africa and learned Zulu traditions and duties in the household of his uncle, the chief of Groutville, a community associated with an American Congregational mission in Natal’s sugar lands. Educated through his mother’s earnings as a washerwoman and by a scholarship, he graduated from the American Board Mission’s teacher-training college at Adams, near Durban, and became one of its first three African instructors. In 1927 Luthuli married Nokukhanya Bhengu, a teacher and granddaughter of a clan chief.
In 1936 Luthuli left teaching to become the elected chief of the community of 5,000 at Groutville. Though confronted by land hunger, poverty, and political voicelessness, he did not yet recognize the need for political action. In those early years he was, variously, secretary of the Natal African Teachers’ Association and of the South African Football Association, founder of the Zulu Language and Cultural Society, and member of the Christian Council Executive, of the Joint Council of Europeans and Africans, and of the Institute of Race Relations in Durban.
In December 1956 Luthuli and 155 others were dramatically rounded up and charged with high treason. His long trial failed to prove treason, a communist conspiracy, or violence, and in 1957 he was released. During this time Luthuli’s quiet authority and his inspiration to others profoundly impressed distinguished foreign observers, and this led to his nomination for the Nobel Prize. Nonwhite people responded in large numbers to his call for a stay-at-home strike in 1957; later, whites also began attending his mass meetings. In 1959 the government confined him to his rural neighbourhood and banned him from gatherings, this time for five years, for “promoting feelings of hostility” between the races.
In December 1961 Luthuli was allowed to leave Groutville briefly when, with his wife, he flew to Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize. His acceptance address paid tribute to his people’s nonviolence and rejection of racism despite adverse treatment, and he noted how far from freedom they remained despite their long struggle. A week later the ANC’s newly created military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), attacked installations throughout South Africa. The policy of nonviolence had at last been abandoned, and Luthuli, back in enforced isolation, was an honoured elder statesman, dictating his autobiography and receiving only those visitors permitted by the police.
On July 21, 1967, as he made a habitual crossing of a railway bridge near his small farm, Chief Luthuli was struck by a train and died.