American activist C. DeLores Tucker (born 1927) has risen to national prominence in African American civil rights circles through her tireless activism and political fundraising.
C. DeLores Tucker
The struggle to end racism and make her world a more equal, multicultural society dates back to the 1940s for C. DeLores Tucker. In the decades since then she has become a respected-and indeed even feared-personality. She counts among her personal friends and associates some equally stellar activists for the black cause, including Coretta Scott King, the Reverend Desmond Tutu, and Colin Powell. Her career in civil rights has spanned the entire latter half of the twentieth century. In the 1990s, she became a vocal opponent of demeaning images of minorities in rap music and did not shirk from blaming the African Americans she felt were ultimately responsible. Like the other battles she has engaged in, this crusade and her outspokenness earned her enemies. Yet Tucker views the projects to which she commits herself-electing more African Americans to public office, for example, or halting the sale of offensive rap music to minors-as part of a larger goal, "to give our children an alternative environment that will help them shape their character, " Tucker told Washington Post journalist Judith Weintraub. The organizations which Tucker has founded, led, or become involved on a leadership level include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Political Congress of Black Women, the Reverend Jesse Jackson's National Rainbow Coalition, the Democratic National Committee, and the Federation of Democratic Women.
Tucker herself grew up in a nurturing, achievement-oriented atmosphere. Born Cynthia DeLores Nottage on October 4, 1927, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she was one of eleven children of the Reverend Whitfield Nottage, a Bahamian immigrant, and his wife, Captilda Gardner Nottage. Tucker was raised in a devout Christian household in Philadelphia where neither dancing nor music were permitted, and the Nottage daughters were forbidden to date before they were twenty-one. Because her father refused to accept a minister's salary for his church pastorships, Tucker's independent-minded mother became an entrepreneur in order to feed and clothe the children. She founded an employment agency for African Americans who had left the un-industrialized South in search of work, ran a grocery store for a time, then became a landlord. Her daughter would inherit some of those same Philadelphia properties and later faced accusations of being a "slumlord" as she rose to prominence in the civil rights struggle.
Tucker's household and community infused so much support and positive energy into her upbringing that she later said she had been unaware of racism at all until relatively late in adolescence, when she was the only African American in her ninth-grade class. Planning to become a physician, Tucker worked in local hospitals during the summers, and when she graduated from Girls' High in Philadelphia, her father took her to the Bahamas as a treat. On the ship, Tucker realized that minority passengers were given substandard, segregated berths, and refused such accommodations. Instead she spent the night outside on the ship's deck, and shortly afterward was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The serious illness restricted her to a sickbed for an entire year, and her plans for medical school were dashed.
After her recovery, Tucker enrolled at Philadelphia's Temple University. She first became active in the burgeoning postwar civil rights movement when she worked to register black voters during a 1950 mayoral campaign. In July of 1951 she married a friend of her brother, Philadelphia real estate executive William Tucker, and though the two would not have children of their own, they did become foster parents to a number of offspring from their extended families over the years. The real-estate experience Tucker gained first with her mother's holdings and later in business with her husband helped make her a well-known figure in her city. She became the first African American and first female member of Philadelphia Zoning Board, and as the civil rights movement began in earnest in the late 1950s, she discovered more and more outlets into which she could channel her talents. She took part in the major civil-rights actions of the day, participated in the 1965 White House Conference on Civil Rights with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and after his 1968 assassination founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Non-Violence. She was a founding member of the National Women's Caucus, and a co-founder of the Black Women's Political Caucus. For a time she also served as vice-president of the Pennsylvania NAACP.
Tucker's full-time involvement in the civil rights movement made her a prime candidate for a secondary career in politics. The only salaried position of her life came in 1971 when Pennsylvania governor Milton J. Shapp appointed her commonwealth secretary, a post equivalent to secretary of state. She became the highest-ranking African American woman in state government in the United States at the time. The responsibilities of her job were serious; her office was charged with regulating the state's businesses, and she also helped implement an affirmative-action program to equalize the state's hiring practices. But in 1977 Tucker came under fire for alleged improprieties-detractors charged her with using her employees to help write speeches for outside public-speaking engagements. She was dismissed by Shapp, but Tucker defended her conduct and countered that it was her refusal to support Shapp's chosen successor that landed her in trouble; she said the potential governor would likely dismantle the state's affirmative action program once in office. Prominent African Americans such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson also spoke out against what they felt was a politically-motivated firing.
Over the next several years, Tucker herself made several runs for office, but was far more effective as a fundraiser and organizer for other African American political personalities. She was involved in Jackson's presidential campaign in 1984, chaired the Democratic National Committee's Black Caucus for several years after that, founded and led the National Political Congress of Black Women, and served on the national board of trustees of the NAACP. In 1987 she became the first African American run for Pennsylvania's lieutenant governor post; she came in third.
Tucker is usually cited in Ebony magazine's list of the "100 Most Influential Black Americans, " and her sway galvanized into a full-strength force in the early 1990s when she launched a campaign against offensive rap music. Tucker's words struck a chord with the African American community, and the situation spiraled so far out of control that again, her detractors accused her of a range of misdeeds. The fracas began when Tucker learned that her young grandniece had begun using words she heard in rap songs, and the parents of some of her friends severed their children's contact with the youngster. Tucker began looking into some of the "gangsta" rap popular at the time with teenagers of a variety of backgrounds and was shocked to hear lyrics promoting an array of vices, violence, and a culture of disrespect. She was particularly incensed at the music of Tupac Shakur and Nine Inch Nails, both signed to the Interscope label. Launching a public-relations attack on the record-store chains that profited from such records, she began demonstrating outside retail outlets and was even arrested in Washington, DC, in 1993.
As Tucker explained to Chicago Tribune writer Monica Fountain, "these images of black young kids acting like gangstas go all around the world." She objected to such lyrics being sold to minors and asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to launch an inquiry. Both the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus lent support to Tucker's cause. Congressional hearings were held on the subject in 1994, and soon afterward Tucker set her sights on an even larger target, the Time Warner media empire. The company distributed Interscope, whose rap subsidiary, Death Row Records, put out the recordings of some of the most popular gangsta artists. Tucker purchased stock in Time Warner, which allowed her the privilege of attending shareholders' meetings and speaking out. At a May 1995 shareholders' meeting, she stood and asked the executives to read aloud the very lyrics through which their company reaped such profits. They refused. "How long will Time Warner continue to put profit before principle?" she asked at the meeting, according to Fountain's Chicago Tribune article. "How long will it continue to turn its back on the thousands of young people who are dying spiritually and physically due to the violence perpetuated in these recordings?"
Tucker also focused her ire at Time Warner chair Gerald Levin. "I told him about the black males-25 percent are either in jail or under some judicial regulation, " she declared in another Chicago Tribune profile by Sonya Ross. "I said, 'Mr. Levin, how are we going to raise a race of people with no men?"' Tucker has also noted that she has served as surrogate parent to many nieces and nephews, not all of whom went down the right path, and over the years came to realize that cultural forces and images play a large role in shaping self-esteem. Not long after the incident, Time Warner sold its interest in Interscope. Tucker considered it a victory, but Death Row head Marion "Suge" Knight hired investigators and then filed suit against Tucker on behalf of his roster of artists. She was accused of conspiracy and extortion as a result of a meeting with Knight at which two recording artists (who were also National Political Caucus of Black Women members), Melba Moore and Dionne Warwick, were also present. Supposedly the women offered Knight a deal to leave Interscope and sign with a black-owned record company they planned, but Tucker retorted that they had simply asked him to try for more positive messages in his artists' music. He said he would need "distribution" to engineer such a situation, and Moore and Knight agreed then to look into financing for such a possible black-owned enterprise.
Some believed that Knight and the gangsta-rap camp had set Tucker up. A smear campaign had indeed been launched against her, which brought up her 1977 Pennsylvania dismissal as well as the fact that in the 1960s the properties her mother had owned and passed on to Tucker and her husband had deteriorated to substandard conditions. (Tucker recounted in a Los Angeles Times interview with Chuck Philips that back then, she and her husband had "rented to displaced women on welfare with six or seven children who couldn't get housing anywhere else. We tried to help them, but the tenants never paid their rent…. Itgot to the point where they had to all be boarded up.")
Still, Tucker refused to back down in her campaign to stop the potentially harmful messages espoused by gangsta rap. "It's important to pay attention to who is dredging up all these charges, " Tucker told Philips in the Los Angeles Times. "Remember, these are the same people who are out there pimping pornography to your children. Their record and records speak for them." She called for a boycott of a large record chain, and others rallied in support; singer Anita Baker gave a $10, 000 check toward her defense fund. Tucker, a lifelong Democrat, also earned support from unlikely corners-former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett became an ally. The two often appear at the same speaking engagements against rap lyrics. "She's a daunting figure, " Bennett told Weintraub of the Washington Post. "Usually I'm the noisy one, but she's ferocious."
Tucker's attack on offensive images of African Americans is by no means her only work, even though she turned seventy in 1997. She is founder and leader of the Bethune-DuBois Fund, which raises and distributes money for voter-registration drives in African American communities and lends political support to its candidates. She was also influential in the reform movement within the NAACP. As a national executive board member, Tucker spoke out against the financial misdeeds of President William Gibson in 1994, and organized a "Save Our Ship" committee; the board eventually ousted Gibson and advanced Tucker's friend, civil-rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams (widow of slain 1960s activist Medgar Evers), to the presidency. In her lifetime, Tucker has received over 300 honors, is publisher of Vital Issues: The Journal of African American Speeches, and has served as a vice-president of the Philadelphia Tribune since 1989. In the interview with Weintraub of the Washington Post, Tucker did admit to wondering who might fill her shoes: "I wish other people could do what I'm doing so I could step back and retire."
Further Reading on C. DeLores Tucker
Smith, Jessie Carney, editor, Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.
Chicago Tribune, September 15, 1995; November 10, 1996.
Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1996, p. A1.
Washington Post, November 29, 1995, p. C1.