Archbishop Desmond Tutu, center, of South Africa is surrounded by admirers… (Christina House / For the…)
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.
"He inspired me and touched me with the things he did in South Africa," Virgen said. "I can see helping my community in any way I can. I didn't know much about him before, but now I want to look more into his life and his achievements."
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:
"What are they saying to you?" he asked the students. "That the sky is the limit."
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.
"He died quite a while ago, but his influence remains," Tutu said.
The students responded to Tutu's playful sense of humor when he mentioned the mascots of Santee and Crenshaw High School, which sent about 200 students to the event.
"I gather that there are things called 'cougars' and 'falcons,'" he said, as students roared.
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.
He said "not to be afraid, to keep moving forward for what we believe in," the 17-year-old said. "I like when he said that we have to start off small in order to expand."
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. The mayor, a former labor organizer, told the students it was important to "acknowledge our heroes and to realize we are all connected and interconnected."
That point was emphasized by Santee Principal Richard Chavez, who said teachers developed a lesson plan to introduce students to Tutu before the event.
"My expectation and hope is that they will take from this an understanding of the contributions others have made for them to be here today and use that to model the things we expect from them," Chavez said.