In Memoriam: The Black Leaders Who Inspire Me
Julian D. '28

In the essay below, I share the history of three important Black people from around the world. These great men have all passed away in the past year, so I wanted our community to remember their stories. When you read about them, I hope you’ll agree with me that they were great and inspirational people. I chose these three men because they have been large figures in Black power. I look up to them, as people who achieved things that I want to achieve in my life. Each of them has accomplished achievements that no other has, whether it be in leading political change, heading into war, or acting. They are Desmond Tutu, Colin Powell, and Sidney Poitier.

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu was born in 1931 in South Africa. Tutu wanted to start off with a medical career. However, he couldn’t afford training, so he then became a school teacher in 1955. He resigned in 1957. He then went to St. Peter’s Theological College, and became a priest in 1961. 

In 1962, the main leader against apartheid, Nelson Mandela, was arrested. During the 1980s Tutu played a large role against apartheid. He specifically called for non-violent protests against it. During these times, the main people who would act violently were the young students, who acted violent against apartheid. Desmond came and preached to them about the correct ways of fighting against apartheid. 

In 1984, Desmond Tutu was given the Nobel Peace Prize, and was nicknamed, “The Martin Luther King of South Africa.” In 1985, at the height of the rebellions against the South African government, Desmond Tutu became the first Black Anglican bishop. In 1986 he became the first archbishop of Cape Town. Some great words that Desmond Tutu said were “If you want peace don’t talk to your friends, talk to your enemies.” This is a great example of the strategies the black people used in South Africa, looking the beast in the eye, and saying what they needed to hear.

Colin Powell 

Born April 5, 1937, in Harlem, New York, Colin Powell was the first African American to be National Security Advisor, Joint Chief of Staff, and Secretary of State. Colin Powell’s parents immigrated from Jamaica looking for a better life, and better work. His father was a tomato farmer, and his mother was a seamstress. For a long time, while he was young, he lived in the South Bronx of New York. From elementary school and on, he was a straight C student. But even then, he knew that this wasn’t his maximum. When he saw the men at his college walking around in those fancy-looking military uniforms he thought to himself, “I want to be like that”. When he started training in the ROTC to become part of the army, he realized, “I’m going to have to do better than straight C’s”. In 1958 Powell got recruited into the army as a soldier. From 1962 through 1963, Colin Powell served a tour in Vietnam as a South Vietnamese Army advisor. 

Colin Powell faced many injuries in the Vietnam War including stepping on a punji stake, a booby trap that is sharpened and heated, and set in a hole. The infection made it hard to walk and caused his foot to swell for some time. Colin Powell also experienced a helicopter crash, breaking his ankle, but not stopping himself from saving others in the crash. He received The Purple Heart, a medal that shows how you sacrificed yourself in the line of duty. These injuries were like bee stings compared to others. Four of his college classmates died during this war. 

After the war, he became the National Security Advisor under President Ronald Reagan.  As the National Security Advisor he would give policy options to the President of the United States. It’s easy to see how he was the first African American to have this job. He then became the Joint Chief of staff, Advising the President and other civilian leaders on how to deal with military issues. The Joint Chiefs of Staff comprise the heads of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Finally, he became Secretary of State, carrying out the President's foreign policies through the State Department and the Foreign Service of the United States.

Colin Powell is arguably one of the best African American soldiers there ever was.

Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier was born February 20, 1927, and was an African American actor, director, and producer. He was born in Miami, Florida, however he grew up in Cat Island, Bahamas. At age 15, he went back to Miami. As a teenager in the United States, Poitier enlisted in the army during World War II and served a stint in a medical unit. After he was discharged, he traveled to New York City, fantasizing about all the great things said about it. 

When he got to New York City, he saw a poster for acting, and he loved what he saw. So soon after, he applied to the American Negro Theater. He didn’t have a good education, and, in fact, only went to school until about age 12. When he applied for the job in New York, he spoke slowly while reading- each word took almost a second. After about 5 words, the man said, “Get out!”. After 6 months of practicing his accent, and English words, he re-applied and was accepted.

He then became a star Hollywood actor, acting in many films, including No Way Out, Lilies of the Field, and To Sir, with Love. Next, he became a producer. Amazingly, in many of the movies he produced, he both produced AND acted in them. 

Lilies of the Field was such an amazing movie, that he got an Academy Award for it in 1963. 38 years later he received the Academy Honorary Award. This made him the first African American to get an academy award. He crushed the barrier of what African Americans can see themselves doing. He was a barrier breaker.

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