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When icons pass

Elinor Tatum | 4/12/2011, 5:25 p.m.

It seems that on an all-too-regular basis, we have on the front page of this newspaper the sad news of another icon passing.

Whether it be Percy Sutton or Benjamin Hooks, Dorothy Height, J. Bruce Llewellyn or Lee Archer, each held their place in history, and in that history is the story of the struggle of Blacks in America, our civil, civic, social, political and economic struggles and the lengths that those before us have gone through to help improve our lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters across this vast nation.

This week alone we lost two champions, Hooks and Height. They were stalwarts in the fight for equality. Hooks lead the NAACP through some of its toughest years during the 1970s, '80s and early '90s, years when reactionary forces tried to turn back the dramatic gains made by the civil rights generation of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the 1980s, he spoke about the need for non-violence in the fight for civil rights. He said, "There are a lot of ways an oppressed people can rise. One way to rise is to study, to be smarter than your oppressor. The concept of rising against oppression through physical contact is stupid and self-defeating. It exalts brawn over brain. And the most enduring contributions made to civilization have not been made by brawn, they have been made by brain."

He believed in our community and our community's ability to overcome through education. He lived his life by this principal and wanted all in his wake to understand and believe in it, too.

Seven days after we lost Ben Hooks at 85, we lost Dr. Dorothy Height at age 98. By any measure, they had long and productive lives--as much time on this earth that any of us can ask for. But even though they were with us far longer than most of our people are blessed with, for some of our giants nearly a century still does not seem a long enough time on this Earth.

Dorothy Height had the ear of presidents and first ladies since the days of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleven presidents called on her for counsel. For 40 years, she led the National Council of Negro Women and in that position, she fought for the rights of all women, no matter their race, as well as for all Black people, men and women.

She was at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of the great women of the Civil Rights Movement who were generals in the war for our rights. Her signature hats were an emblematic part of the dais at the March on Washington in 1963 and again in 2008 when Barrack Obama was sworn in as our 44th president. Height lived a full life that had substance and meaning. She knew how to get the job done and get our issues heard and dealt with.

Even as these two icons aged, they remain engaged in the civil and civic life of our community and our country. They did "not go gently into that good night." They fought every step of the way. But who is there to fight now? The names start to thin as the years go by and that generation is dying off. Save for a few, there are not the same numbers of Black leaders out there with the same strength of character to help chart the course of our future.