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C. DeLores Tucker, 78; Civil Rights Pioneer Led a Spirited Campaign Against Gangsta Rap

October 14, 2005|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

C. DeLores Tucker, a longtime civil rights activist best known as a fiery antagonist of profanity-laced rap music lyrics that denigrate blacks and women, died Wednesday at a Philadelphia rehabilitation hospital. She was 78.

The cause was heart failure, according to a spokesman for the National Congress of Black Women, based in Silver Spring, Md., which Tucker founded in 1984.

Tucker chaired the Black Caucus of the Democratic National Committee for 11 years and became the highest-ranking black woman in state government as Pennsylvania's commonwealth secretary in the 1970s.

In the 1990s, she launched a crusade against gangsta rap, a battle that gained momentum after she joined forces with William J. Bennett, the former Reagan administration Education Department secretary whose emphasis on moral training resonated with Tucker, the daughter of a minister.

"She was extremely forceful ... a very articulate speaker. I remember deferring to her all the time," Bennett, who is known for his pugnacity, said in an interview Thursday.

Her campaign provoked intense debate among blacks, some of whom found her criticism of rap music narrow-minded. Her assault on the lyrics also alarmed defenders of 1st Amendment rights and made enemies of some of the biggest names in the rap music world, including Death Row Records chief Marion "Suge" Knight.

Although she never blocked the dissemination of any music, Tucker was a formidable opponent. A skillful rhetorician, she linked offensive rap lyrics to problems plaguing African Americans, particularly black-on-black violence and single-parent families, and she called on rap artists and moguls to give vulnerable black youths more positive messages in their music.

"If corporate responsibility dictates that we protect the whales, protect the rivers and protect the environment, then the most important of all Earth's resources should be protected. We have to try to save these children," she said at the peak of her battle against rap lyrics in 1995. "They don't have daddies in the home, they don't have jobs, they don't have a support system. They only have us."

Tucker was born in Philadelphia, the 10th of 11 children of the Rev. Whitfield Nottage, a Bahamian immigrant, and his wife, Captilda Gardner Nottage. Because her father was unsalaried, her mother supported the family. She ran an employment agency for Southern blacks who migrated to the North, opened a grocery store and eventually became a landlord.

Tucker said she did not encounter racism until she was in high school and her father treated her to a trip to the Bahamas. On the ship she discovered that the berths were segregated and refused to accept the inferior accommodations assigned to minorities. She slept on the ship's deck and shortly afterward was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She spent a year in bed, which she said ruined her plans for college and a medical career.

After she recovered, she briefly attended Philadelphia's Temple University but did not earn a degree. In 1951, she married William Tucker, a construction company owner who later made a fortune in real estate. She also became involved in politics, running a voter registration drive in Philadelphia and becoming the first woman and first black to sit on the city's zoning board.

In 1955, she joined the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and over the next decade participated in marches and demonstrations across the country with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1971, Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp named her secretary of the commonwealth, a post equivalent to secretary of state. Credited with streamlining voter registration procedures, she served until 1977, when critics accused her of using state employees to write speeches for which she earned $65,000 in fees. Shapp fired her, but Tucker defended her conduct and said her troubles stemmed from her refusal to support one of his allies.

She was unsuccessful in other bids for public office, including a 1992 race for Congress from her Philadelphia district. But she gained prominence in national Democratic politics, and addressed the Democratic National Convention five times. She founded the National Congress of Black Women in 1984 to increase the political involvement of black women.

Tucker became a general in the war on rap lyrics after a niece she was raising was ostracized for using foul language she had heard in the music. She began to scrutinize gangsta rap and was appalled by songs that seemed to extol violence and promote the degradation of women.

She began picketing stores that sold the music. To take the battle into corporate boardrooms, she bought 20 shares of Time Warner stock so that she could speak out at shareholders' meetings. At a May 1995 meeting, she delivered a 17-minute tirade against misogynistic and violent rap lyrics and challenged executives to read some of the most offensive examples aloud. None would.

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