Samuel Wilbert Tucker, a great and good man, died Oct. 19. He was a great man because he fought for racial equality in the face of intense animosity, and he never backed down.
"I would say there was a time when he and I were two of the most hated men in the entire commonwealth," said Robert R. Merhige Jr., the U.S. District Court judge who ordered busing to achieve desegregation of Virginia's public schools. "I thought at that time he was the bravest man I had ever met. My opinion never changed."
Tucker was a good man because no matter how important he became, he never forgot to show his love for his family, friends and neighbors.
I first met him in 1986, when I was writing a story about his law partner, Oliver W. Hill. At that time, Tucker and Hill had been involved in civil rights litigation for more than 50 years, having gone up against more than 50 school boards in Virginia to compel desegregation. Tucker argued more than 30 cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals, including the protracted and bitter lawsuit to compel Prince Edward County to reestablish public education.
Fearless is a word that gets used when people talk about Tucker. He was fearless at age 14 when he and his older brother were arrested in Alexandria following a confrontation with a white woman over a seat on a trolley car. A jury of white men found that he and his brother had committed no crime. Seven years later in 1934, in the same Alexandria courtroom, Tucker took the oath of office as a member of the bar.
He was fearless in 1939 when he filed a suit to end the exclusion of black people from the Alexandria Public Library. At that time Tucker helped develop what later became known as a sit-in. In a series of cases that a judge left undecided, Tucker defended five young black men who had dared to read in the "whites-only" library. Alexandria avoided integrating the library by establishing a separate library for its black citizens.
"I suppose we got into the struggle out of a sense of self-respect," Tucker said of himself and Hill in 1986. "We knew what was right, and it just went against our grains. It was a sort of rebel statesmanship that came from the same spark, the same flame."
He added, his voice cracking with emotion: "You must understand that the struggle to be free is paramount. You cannot suppress it without it taking over your heart."
That unforgettable moment kept flashing before me as I made the drives to Emporia, Va., and Alexandria for his memorial services. Merhige spoke at a service in Richmond on Oct. 31, as did as Gov. L. Douglas Wilder; James W. Benton Jr., judge, Court of Appeals of Virginia; Julius Chambers, director-counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.; Benjamin Hooks, executive secretary of the NAACP; Roger L. Gregory, president of the Old Dominion Bar Association; and Henry L. Marsh III, another of Tucker's law partners and Richmond's first mayor of African-American descent.
But none was as eloquent as Tucker's former neighbor Robert Sykes at a service in Emporia on Oct. 26 in the Royal Baptist Church.
"Without Sam Tucker," Sykes said, "there would have been no Gov. Wilder, no Mayor Henry Marsh."
In 1986, when the Virginia State Bar Association presented lifelong service awards to Tucker and Hill, Tucker pointed out a bittersweet irony. He recalled how that same bar association in 1962 had attempted to have him disbarred for his NAACP work. He warned the members of the bar "to be very circumspect about ever allowing this professional organization to be used for political purposes."
When the crowd gave a standing ovation for Tucker and Hill that afternoon at Virginia Beach, two lawyers in the row in front of me stayed seated. Looking at them I realized that no matter how far black people come, no matter how much recognition they receive for their accomplishments, somebody in the crowd will still be acting ugly, acting out age-old prejudices.
I felt grateful that day for the efforts of men like Tucker and Hill. At Tucker's memorial services I felt sadness because this world will be colder and lonelier without him. But I also felt a renewed commitment to the fight. Much obliged, Mr. Tucker, much obliged.
-- Carol O'Connor Wolfe