Human rights activist Desmond Tutu delivered the eighteenth annual Wallenberg lecture at Hill Auditorium Wednesday night after receiving the Wallenberg Medal from University President Mary Sue Coleman. The auditorium was filled to capacity, and broadcast live to the crowd an overflow room in the Modern Languages Building.
Tutu, known for his efforts to promote peace in South Africa during the apartheid regime in the 1980s, said he accepted the medal only “in a representational capacity.”
“The people you will want to honor are the many, many millions who for a very long time were anonymous,” he said.
Tutu, who worked as a teacher for three years before becoming a priest, said political leadership wasn’t something he ever aimed for.
“I always say I became a leader by default. The real leaders were either in prison or in exile or were under some restriction or other and I had this platform and the media for some reason seemed to want to give me a voice,” he said in a press conference earlier in the day.
Tutu said he’s happy to be in the United States right now because of the upcoming election. He seemed to express support for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who is currently ahead in several national polls.
“If the elections go the way the polls seem to be indicating, then one can say that a new era will dawn. I think that it will be an epoch-making change.”
Tutu said the United States has seen its reputation hurt by certain policies during the last few years.
“There certainly is a resentment in most parts of the world at an arrogant, unilateral America that is seen as a big bully-boy, refusing to sign Kyoto Protocol when the rest of the world is saying ‘climate change is a very real threat to the continued existence of humankind.’”
A new administration could end these worrying trends, Tutu said.
“America is a great country and it has some of the most generous people in the world, and one hopes that it will be that kind of generosity to the rest of the world that characterizes the new administration rather than an America that says ‘we will do what we like, when we like’ whether the rest of the world wants to or not.’”
During the lecture, Tutu discussed how some people find it hard to keep their faith when so many atrocities are being committed in the world, naming the situations in Darfur, Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe as examples. He then argued that history gives us evidence that a better world is possible, and that good always wins over evil.
“We won a glorious victory over the awfulness of apartheid,” he said. “Hitler, where is he now?”
Tutu ended the lecture by encouraging young people to keep on dreaming of a better world.
“Don’t allow us oldies to affect you with our cynicism,” he said.
Leon Webster, a fourth-year Rackham graduate student, said he found Tutu “very engaging.”
Other students agreed and liked the hopeful tone of the address.
“It’s exciting to see a message of inspiration brought to so many people,” Public Policy masters student Elaine Denney said. “The more people who feel inspired and feel empowered to change, the better.”