The United Nations referred to apartheid as “a crime against humanity” (United Nations, edited 2018). In 1956, Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican priest, wrote the book, Naught for your Comfort, which spoke out vigorously against apartheid through the theology that all mankind is of equal value. The year the book was published it became a bestseller and attracted the attention of the international community. It shared the plight of African South Africans who were negatively affected by Apartheid which effectively stripped them of all their rights. As a minister Huddleston was able to speak to the international community on a theological level. And, being a white man, others were more readily willing to listen to his message than if he had been black. He created organizations to oppose and end Apartheid and participated in activism to bring awareness and change. The progress of his efforts were seen throughout his lifetime. When Apartheid ended he continued to support ongoing progress becoming the founding patron of Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA), the successor of the British Anti-apartheid movement (AAM). By bringing international awareness to the atrocities of Apartheid, Huddleston brought positive change to a deeply rooted system that was founded in and maintained by white supremacy.
Huddleston was born in 1913 into a white Anglican family in England. His father and mother were away most of his early life and he was raised primarily by his aunt, who had the greatest influence on him in his early years. Anglicanism was the main focus of his Aunt’s life. Although he claimed that his upbringing had little to do with the man he became, the influence of the Anglican theology can be witnessed throughout his lifework and in values that he held (Cole, 2002).
During his college years Huddleston studied at Oxford University and while there decided on the priesthood. He was ordained in 1937. The years at Oxford were formative and ultimately resulted in defining his political views as well. His time at Oxford coincided with the Great Depression of the 1930’s. He witnessed Hunger Marches where the disparity between wealth and poverty were palpable. In an interview Huddleston stated that the Hunger Marches that he witnessed deeply affected him. “They were starving whilst I lived in great luxury and privilege” (New Statesman & Society, 1995). Watching people march in the streets toward Parliament to bring awareness to their need for basic necessities was difficult. This awareness of the plight of these people combined with the theological beliefs he was studying, presented him with the opportunity for deep thought on the subject. He concluded that the story of Jesus in the New Testament and the fundamental principles of socialism were related – that these political and theological beliefs could not be separated in society. The works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and Charles Gore, socialists and theologians respectively, became key ideas in the foundation of his beliefs. Huddleston stated, “I was like a babe in the woods, required to make sense of complex economic and political theory on the one hand and erudite Christian doctrine on the other…” (Villa-Vicencio, 1996). After wrestling with these ideas Huddleston came to realize, “I am convinced that to be a Christian is to be a socialist, and I like to tell my socialist friends it will do their souls good to read the New Testament story of Jesus” (Villa-Vicencio, 1996).
In 1939 Huddleston joined the Community of Resurrection, an Anglican religious order. Here, he discovered spirituality, which “is the engine that drives my life” (Villa-Vicencio, 1996). In 1943, he was sent to the Community of Resurrection mission station in Rosettenville, Johannesburg and was put in charge of the township of Sophiatown. The Community of the Resurrection had maintained a presence in Sophiatown for forty years. The work they contributed to the community included valuable work in the education of urban blacks.Huddleston served in the township of Sophiatown from 1943 to 1956, and was not only the administrator and leader of education efforts, but he was also their minister, advocate, organizer, teacher, and defender. Sophiatown was one of the oldest black areas in Johannesburg and an epicenter of politics, jazz, and blues during the 1940s and 1950s.
Huddleston was successful in bonding with the people of Sophiatown due to his warmth and ability to connect in such a way as to relate naturally with Africans. Desmond Tutu witnessed Huddleston’s connection with the townspeople, “He was so un-English in many ways, being very fond of hugging people, embracing them, and in the way in which he laughed. He did not laugh like many white people, only with their teeth, he laughed with his whole body, his whole being, and that endeared him very much to black people … His office in Sophiatown would have very many street urchins playing marbles on the floor and the next moment when he had shooed them out he would be meeting ambassadors and high-placed officials and leading businessmen” (Allen, 2007, 17-18). This ability to bond with the ordinary folk and dignitaries alike would prove to ultimately serve Huddleston well in his life mission. The people of Sophiatown nicknamed him, Makhalipile, meaning the dauntless one. Fortitude and love seemed to embrace the stand he took for progress and the rights of mankind. Mandela illuminates the respect he had within the township. “His (Huddleston’s) fearlessness won him the support of everyone. No one, neither gangster, tsotsi nor pickpocket would touch him. Their respect for him was such that they would have tried - and if they did it could have cost them their lives. His enormous courage gave him a quality that commanded the respect of the place” (Cole, 2002).
An example of the effect he had on the lives of the inhabitants of Sophiatown is the story of Hugh Masekela, a famous South African trumpeter, flugelhornist, cornetist, composer and singer, who has been described as “the father of South African jazz”. Masekela had come to the attention of Huddleston as a troubled youth. Masekela told Father Huddleston, “If I got a trumpet I wouldn’t bother anyone” (Apartheid and all that jazz, Financial times, 2010). In response, Huddleston gave Masekela a trumpet and a teacher and ended up forming a band called the Huddleston Jazz Band. Masekela then explains that, “He met Louis Armstrong and told him about us and Louis Armstrong sent us a trumpet. We became news. The older musicians discovered us. Five of us are still professional musicians today” (Apartheid and all that jazz, Financial times, 2010). Such acts of kindness and connection characterized Huddleston who had a lasting effect on the communities he interacted with. He not only gave them an avenue in which to succeed but also helped bring awareness to a broader community that supported their efforts as well.
Huddleston felt his calling was “pastoral”. And “My commitment was to care for the souls and lives of my people. The fact that this placed me at loggerheads with the government said as much about their system as the gospel I preached” (Villa-Vicencio, 1996). He also stated that, “I am still convinced that the Bantu Education Act was the most iniquitous of all apartheid laws. It sought systematically to destroy the potential and therefore the image of God in innocent children. I still believe that if only the Churches had dug their heels in and spoken with a single voice the horrors of Bantu Education could have been curtailed. Instead, there was a whispering within the Church against those of us who opposed the bill. This convinced the authorities that the Church would capitulate. They were right” (Villa-Vicencio, 1996). Ultimately, Huddleston would close the school of St Peter’s because the church could not in all conscience provide an education to Africans for servitude and subservience, such as the Bantu Education Act dictated. Huddleston played a large role in protesting against the forced removals in Sophiatown.
As white working-class areas developed next to Sophiatown, the government became wary that the suburb was too close to white settlement. Under the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950, people of mixed races could not reside together, making it possible for the government to forcibly remove and segregate races. The people of Sophiatown came together in protest. Trevor Huddleston together with Nelson Mandela, Helen Joseph, and Ruth First were at the forefront of protesting against the forced removals in Sophiatown. The Sophiatown community was very near and dear to Huddleston’s heart, so the eradication of the town was devastating for him:
You need to understand, for me there was a certain ecstasy in the agony of Sophiatown. I loved that place more than any other in my life. When Sophiatown was obliterated South Africa lost more than a place, it lost an idea. Sophiatown was a remarkable community of people who amidst the chaos of suffering thrust on them by racism and greed, had learned what it meant to triumph over the most adverse odds. Given the freedom, the resources and the opportunity, Sophiatown could have built on the goodwill and creativity that characterized so many of its people, to make a lasting contribution to a better South Africa. By destroying Sophiatown the sense of community which was its characterizing mark was destroyed. People's initiative was killed and their hopes shattered. As a consequence, social problems multiplied, while the wisdom and hidden beauty of the place was undermined. What held Sophiatown together was the belief that people, however poor and exploited they may be, have the right to live where they like, to build themselves a home, to be themselves and to sustain one another. Take that away and you have social chaos. . . Think of the musicians, poets, artists, writers and the like that came out of Sophiatown. In killing that place the government killed a certain creativity, an African idea of what it means to be human. . . Yet, thank God, such ideas can never be totally extinguished. Such ideas need to be raised from the ashes of the many Sophiatowns of this country, because these are the ideas that we may yet need to put the country back together again (Villa-Vicencio, 1996).
Huddleston’s efforts were most effective because of the international attention and awareness he brought to the atrocities of the forced removals. During the Sophiatown removals, Huddleston received media coverage, making him an international celebrity. This increased his harassment by the South African authorities and eventually made it unsafe for him to continue his ministry in South Africa.
When Huddleston returned to England he was moved to write his bestselling novel, Naught for Your Comfort. Published in 1956, it made headlines in both the UK and the United States. In his book, Huddleston spoke out passionately against the system of apartheid. It called thousands of people to join the Anti-Apartheid Movement. “It was a desperate and enduring cry to the world to heed the extent of the apartheid monster; a book that today still reads as one of the most moving personal testimonies to the iniquities that marked a period of South African history that must never be forgotten” (Villa-Vicencio, 1996).
In the book Huddleston was able to elucidate to others the blight apartheid inflicted on South Africa. Huddleston saw apartheid and his mission to help others and eliminate it as, “a crime against humanity, an evil, a demonic power which violated the image of God in people. In this sense it is a blasphemy, needing to be eradicated at almost any cost” (Villa-Vicencio, 1996). Huddleston wrote, “I pray God I may never forget or weary in fighting against it, for it seems to me that as a Christian, and above all as a priest, my main task is always and everywhere the same: to recognize in my brother more than my brother, more even than the personality and the manhood that are his; my task is to recognize Christ Himself. And I cannot therefore, stand aside when it is He whom men treat contemptuously in the streets of the city” (Huddleston, 1987,pg 35)
Huddleston’s theological beliefs were that all men, not just whites, are created by God and all are given divine dignity and infinite value. He saw the contribution of religion to the human rights movement as one that reminded others of the value of all and rejected any attempt to marginalize people or make them expendable. He argued that, “To subordinate people is to subordinate God” (Villa-Vicencio, 1996). Huddleston further states, “I believe that because God became Man, therefore human nature in itself has a dignity and a value which is infinite. I believe that this conception necessarily carries with it the idea that the state exists for the individual, not the individual for the state. Any doctrine based on racial or colour prejudice and enforced by the state is therefore an affront to human dignity and ipso facto an insult to God Himself” (Huddleston, 1987,17-18). He reprimands certain theologies and voices the need for activism when he further states, “There is more to the Christian life than ‘going to church’. If worship does not drive us into the world to heal the sick and liberate the oppressed it is sheer escapism” (Villa-Vicencio, 1996).
Huddleston’s passionate fight did not stop after his publication of Naught for Your Comfort. His energies shifted to establishing, with Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, an official Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). He threw himself into the work of the movement. Almost forty years later, he looks back, observing: "I had the honour of being the first to propose a cultural boycott, cultural sanctions, and I did that as long ago as 1955. I only hope that the lifting of those sanctions is not premature” (Villa-Vicencio, 1996). In 1959, Huddleston and Nyerere addressed the founding meeting of the AAM in London.
In 1961, Huddleston became the Vice President of the AAM, a position he held until 1981. In the same year, the world becomes more involved in international protests. In 1963, Miriam Makeba, South African singer and actress, in exile in the US spoke out about Apartheid to the United Nations. In 1964, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment by the South African government. The official resistance movements were banned in the attempt to silence all opposition.
In 1974, there were more international protests. In 1976, the Soweto Uprising occurred, in which 220 children were wounded and 25 were killed after protesting against the imposition of the Afrikaner’s language as the medium of instruction in schools. They were brutally met by the police who slaughtered many innocent children. This horrendous act was a watershed moment, prompting more international protests against apartheid. In 1978, the UN placed an arms embargo on South Africa.
Huddleston’s continued activism led to him being elected President of the British AAM in 1981 through 1984. He worked closely with and developed a friendship with exiled African National Congress (ANC) leader, Oliver Tambo, in England. During that time he also served as Chair of the Trustees of the International Defense and Aid Fund for South Africa. Through these years of consistent activism progress was slow but was finally seen in the early 1980’s. The first glimmer of active reform by the South African government occurred in the early 1980’s when the government enacted laws to give voting rights to Indians and colored. They established a separate parliament for these groups, but many viewed these reforms as a continuation of ‘separate development’ since no voting rights were extended to Africans, and thus boycotted the elections – the United Democratic Front became vocal, insisting on rights for all non-whites (Haire, personal communication).
Huddleston’s contributions extended through his adult life and the recognition of some of these efforts include being awarded the UN Gold Medal in 1983, The Order of Freedom 1st Class presented by the Zambian government in 1984, the Dag Hammerskjold Award of Peace, Grand Commander of the order of the Niger, Torch of Kilimanjaro, Indira Gandhi Award for Peace, Disarmament, and Development. These recognitions further promoted his fame which helped bring awareness to the cause of defeating apartheid and upholding human rights.
In 1984, Huddleston led an AAM delegation to meet Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which prompted her to more actively support the cause against apartheid. He also addressed the UN and delivered a worldwide petition calling for the release of Mandela and addressed the UN special committee against apartheid. Through the 1980’s his activism included both addressing groups as well as organizing marches and festivals to further bring awareness and support. Some of these included Addressing the Artists against Apartheid 1986, organizing a march and festival in 1986 with an attendance of over 250,000 people, organizing the Harare International Conference on ‘Children, Repression and the Law in Apartheid’, which brought together leaders of the South African Liberation Movement. And in 1988, he initiated the ‘Nelson Mandela Freedom at 70’ campaign which included the birthday concert at Wembley Stadium and the ‘Nelson Mandela Freedom March’ from Glasgow to London. On the eve of Mandela’s 70th birthday, Huddleston and Desmond Tutu addressed a rally of 200,000 people at Hyde Park.
To mark the end of Huddleston’s good work he had the honor of casting his vote in South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. He not only played a key role in dismantling apartheid but he left the country with the tools to further support the progress he helped to set in motion. In 1995 Huddleston became the founding patron of Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA), which succeeded the AAM, an organization he headed until his death. The organization still actively campaigns and works for human rights, equality, and development across South Africa. They raise awareness of the complex issues of the region through advocacy, education, campaigning, and delegations.
During his twilight years, Huddleston chose the designation ‘Bishop Trevor of Sophiatown’ in recognition of his love for Sophiatown. The perseverance of his activism and the awareness he brought to the international community prompted blessings to South Africa that are being perpetuated through the organizations he started and supported. He once stated, "If I were to know that I were to die tonight and were given a personal request, it would be that I go to heaven, there to be united with God and the people I love. If it were a last request of God for South Africa, it would be for a Constitution that eliminates all forms of discrimination and takes care of the poor" (Villa-Vicencio, 1996). He lived long enough to see apartheid not only eliminated but to see his old friend Mandela inaugurated President of a free South Africa. In April 1998 he died and his ashes were interred next to the Church of Christ the King in his beloved Sophiatown.
Desmond Tutu stated, “Trevor Huddleston made sure that apartheid got onto the world agenda and stayed there. If you could say that anybody single-handedly made apartheid a world issue, then that person was Trevor Huddleston” (Reid, edited 2018). A white man born in England to a privileged family could have chosen to continue living his life ignorant or removed from world issues. Instead, Father Trevor Huddleston chose to take a stand against one of the most horrific systematic forms of government, apartheid, and was a key figure in the international movement that destroyed it.
This article forms part of the South African History Online and Principia College Partnership Project
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