In 1995, Essence magazine saluted singer Shirley Horn and civil rights activist C. Delores Tucker as two African American women who, as the magazine put it, "lift as they climb."
Not only had that climb been up the rough side of America's racial mountain, to paraphrase a gospel song, but Horn had made part of the journey after a foot had been amputated because of complications from diabetes and Tucker after a lung had been removed because of tuberculosis.
Many did not learn of those physical challenges until after their recent deaths: Tucker's on Oct. 12 at 78 and Horn's on Thursday at 71. Even without having to overcome such limitations, their ascent to success would have been impressive enough. But the two women also took it upon themselves to nurse an ailing black culture for much of the way, to lift the spirits of a people with the blues and restore lost souls as they climbed.
Horn lit the path with the flame of jazz at her fingertips, and Tucker, as founder of the National Congress of Black Women, marched headlong through an onslaught of gangsta rappers hellbent on self-destruction.
"I began a crusade against 'gangsta rap music' over two years ago, and I said from the beginning that it was greed-driven, race-driven and drug-driven," Tucker told the Urban League of Middle Tennessee in 2000. "No other group of people in this country would permit their youth to be given contracts to call their mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts all kinds of vile, filthy names."
Advocates of gangsta rap have attempted to defend the music by claiming similarities to jazz. The way they see it, gangsta rap is being criticized as immoral today just as jazz was in its early years, and just as jazz grew into a classic American music form, so will gangsta rap be regarded someday as a legitimate expression of black culture.
Let's hope not.
Gangsta rap is to jazz what crude and ignorant is to sophisticated and intelligent. "Oscar Peterson became my Rachmaninoff, and Ahmal Jamal became my Debussy," Horn once said.
Gangsta rap, by contrast, was created from a denigrating racial stereotype, with the music and those who perform it making for a modern-day black-in-blackface minstrel show, marketed as "white suburbia's nightmare vision of inner-city pathology," as author Martha Bayles has put it.
Tucker was appalled by the music that she considered misogynistic and obscene. In 1993, she and the NCBW began a campaign against music companies that produced and distributed gangsta rap. The backlash against her was intense. She was sued by one record producer but prevailed; rap music fans telephoned her home with threats and obscenities. But she never gave in.
"One day, she invited the president of Time Warner [then a distributor of gangsta rap] to her office in Washington and showed him a photograph of her holding hands with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during a civil rights march in Alabama," William Tucker, her husband, told me recently. " She told him, 'I was willing to give my life then, and I'm willing to give my life now.' "
Not long afterward, Time Warner issued a statement saying that the company "will not engage in the promotion and distribution of music that glorifies violence, promotes racial hatred, denigrates women and encourages drug abuse."
Tucker was born in Philadelphia, the 10th of 11 children of a minister and feminist homemaker. Tucker played organ and saxophone and directed the church choir. For her, the roots of black culture could be found in pulpits and pews, not gutters and alleyways. She had marched for civil rights throughout the South before being appointed secretary of the state of Pennsylvania.
Horn was born in the District and learned to play piano on her grandmother's parlor upright before going to study music at Howard University at age 12. She had dreams of a career in classical music, but the racism of the 1940s and a lack of family wealth combined to dash those hopes.
And still she rose to become among Washington's preeminent jazz musicians, paving the way for countless other rising jazz stars.
Two women, two voices -- both beautiful and strong, one lifted in protest, the other in song. May their legacies live on forever.