Los Angeles Students Meet a Civil Rights Hero: Desmond Tutu

Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times, February 18, 2011

The struggles of black citizens in South Africa to overcome a brutal government-imposed system of race separation are right out of a history book to a student like Robert Virgen.

At 15, the Santee Education Complex sophomore hadn’t been born when anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela was released from decades in prison or when the country held its first multiracial elections.

But when one of the heroes of that time, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, came to this downtown high school for a Black History Month celebration Thursday, Virgen said he felt a kinship that transcended time, geography and race.

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If the reception for Tutu was any indication, Virgen was not alone. The 79-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights activist beguiled an auditorium of about 1,000 students with tales of his childhood in South Africa, of being inspired by such Americans as Jackie Robinson and Lena Horne, and of the ongoing fight for human dignity based on character rather than skin color.

He also spoke about the importance of identifying role models, and he mentioned singer Michael Jackson, tennis great Arthur Ashe and actor Denzel Washington:

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Tutu mentioned the recent uprisings that toppled governments in Egypt and Tunisia, noting that many of the young protesters were inspired by the nonviolent civil disobedience of Martin Luther King Jr.

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Finally, he asked the students to stand, wave their hands and chant: “I am a very special person.”

Afterward, Adriana Bernabe, a Santee senior, said she was moved by the message that people can make a difference–just by being themselves.

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The Santee event was cosponsored and filmed by DirecTV and will be offered this spring as a special educational broadcast to about 7,500 schools nationwide. The Crenshaw High Elite Choir sang and danced energetically, and jazz musician Herbie Hancock performed.

Other sponsors were Centric, a companion television network of BET, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which includes Santee. {snip}

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