(WOMENSENEWS)--Many years ago, before it was fashionable or revolutionary, C. DeLores Tucker set the standard for political activism for women who looked and acted like ladies and wore soft kid gloves over their iron fists.
I remember riding with her on a hot day in the early 1960s on a rickety, ancient elevator in an old office building in Philadelphia. We had arrived at the same time to attend the board of directors meeting of the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission.
It was our first time meeting each other. She was an impeccable, gracious and focused matron of 30-something, already an established leader of good causes and a warrior for equal rights. I was a green arrival on the scene of that city's social volunteerism, a slightly younger wannabe, just recently appointed to that same board and in awe of her presence as a truly "cool" operator. She exuded poise and confidence. I thought at that moment--and I continue to think to this day--that when I grow up I want to be like her.
In the ensuing half-century she became my patron and I was her collaborator. We became political colleagues, family friends, advocates for African Americans and women of color, and in the last decade and a half, co-tenders of the rich legacy of icons from the civil rights movement.
An Unrelenting Energy
Although Dr. Tucker herself was an icon who had marched beside Mrs. Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she remained modest and unselfish. She avoided self-aggrandizement and self-promotion to the extent of literally begging that she not be saluted or given public awards because too many others were more deserving, she said. Yet, hers was the vision and the unrelenting energy that created the National Political Congress of Black Women, Inc. in 1984, institutionalizing the power of black women as professional politicians and helping to legitimize their demands for places at the electoral table.
In 2002, as a member of the legendary Black Leadership Forum that annually honors remarkable leaders in the struggle for civil rights and equality, Tucker extracted a promise that the Forum would honor her request that she not receive their highest honor, the Lamplighter Award.
She extracted a second promise that we not tell her devoted and ardently supportive husband, Bill Tucker, that she had declined to be lauded.
She was deeply humbled by the invitation but was reluctant to be showcased in any way, and she knew that her husband would not agree with her modesty. It was only out of respect for the person of humility whom I knew her to have been over all of those years that her request finally was granted. It was an unfortunate decision. If ever there was a lamp-lighter of the paths to equality, justice and opportunity, it was C. Delores Tucker.
Over the years, one of Dr. Tucker's primary delights and pleasures continued to be her work for women who were on the political career ladder and who actively participated in elective politics. Her stubborn non-partisanship was genuine. Her own career as a political trailblazer sensitized her. She was the first black woman to become secretary of state in Pennsylvania, where she established that state's first Commission on the Status of Women. She was the first to serve as chair of the Credentials Committee for the Democratic National Convention, in 1976, and, the first to become a Democratic primary candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania in 1992.
Thus, she deeply appreciated the unique travails of any black woman of any political persuasion who had the courage to run for office or to serve as a political appointee.
She created the Commission on Presidential Appointments, which she convened every four years regardless of who occupied the Oval Office. She personally contacted each president, and through the commission and her own direct persuasion promoted a long list of highly qualified black women candidates for appointed positions in every single administration since 1984.
Dr. Tucker publicly and aggressively advocated for Democrats--like Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman and presidential candidate and former Senator Carol Moseley Braun--as well as for Republicans--like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Secretary of State Constance B. Newman. As CEO of the prominent National Congress of Black Women, she alone shared an unassailably non-partisan, philosophical plateau with Dr. Dorothy Irene Height, president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women, both of whom have been steadfast in their insistence on the universality of equality and opportunity for all women and particularly for women of color.
Race Trumped Gender
Eventually, her determination to support for public office as many talented, qualified African Americans as possible led her and the commission to promote the appointments of several black men as well. She decided that race trumped both gender and party affiliation as the greatest obstacle to the advancement of highly competent African Americans in public office.
Her long illness seems so undeserved. All of her life--even before the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission--she had worked relentlessly to guarantee access and opportunities in the political arena for all Americans of color, and particularly, for African American women. Her peace, at last, is well earned. But, personally, I shall truly miss her being available to me and her presence in my life.
Today--willingly or not--we all enjoy benefits from her creative, passionate and dignified determination that America live up to its promise of justice and fairness for all, including, as she used to say, "our African American sisters."
Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich is co-founder of the Center for Community and Economic Justice and is former executive director of the Black Leadership Forum. She is a professor at National Labor College in Maryland.