Lutuli was a grandson of a tribal chief from the Natal province. His father was a Seventh-day Adventist missionary and his mother descended from tribal aristocracy of the court of the last Zulu king. Lutuli worked as a teacher for 15 years, he was an active member of the Congregational Church, a lay preacher who served in various capacities in church structures and organisations, the missionary movement and the teacher’s association.
In 1930s he joined the African National Congress (ANC) which at that time was about to transform into a mass movement, and quickly assumed a leading role in its structure. After apartheid was enforced, he launched the campaign against racial discrimination. The government accused him of a conflict of interests. He was given a choice: either to resign from ANC membership or to give up the post of the tribal chief. Lutuli refused both, and so he was officially stripped of his tribal status. A month later he became the president of ANC (1952). He was prohibited from entering major cities and speaking in public.
He was persecuted, fined and detained, for example for burning his pass in public as a gesture of solidarity with the victims of the Sharpeville massacre who protested against the requirement of carrying a pass. After ANC was delegalized, Lutuli was fined and given a prison sentence, suspended on grounds of his ill health. His house arrest order was lifted for only 10 days to enable him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and then it was extended again for the next 5 years.