“To Do Good and Love Mercy”: A Conversation with C. Delores Tucker

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

C. Delores Tucker was only a young girl when, because of her color, she was refused seating at a lunch counter in Detroit. The incident marked the beginning of a life devoted to advancing the cause of minority groups in this country. Born in Philadel­phia in 1927, the daughter of the Reverend Whitfield and Captilda (Gardiner) Nottage, she had lived her childhood in a multi­cultural environment that was largely free from hatred and bigotry. After the incident in Detroit, and later similar ones in Virginia and Maryland, Tucker saw that doors were closed everywhere to African Americans and often to women. Her moral courage and fortitude became a hallmark as much as the biblical themes she used in speeches she gave across the Commonwealth to promote the abolition of all forms of prejudice.

She was the tenth in a family of eleven children. After graduating from Philadelphia High School for Girls in 1946, Tucker attended Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, and North Philadelphia Realty School.

In 1951, she married William Tucker and together they launched the Tucker and Tucker Real Estate Company. As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the early 1960s, she led and participated in numerous protests and demonstrations to end discriminatory practices in Philadelphia. A forthright, handsome woman – her face often set off by one of her famous turbans – she is known for her strong presence and dramatic, powerful speeches. In the early sixties Tucker became vice president of the Philadelphia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and in 1961 served as a delegate to the White House Conference on Civil Rights under President John F. Kennedy. In March 1965, as head of the Philadelphia delegation, she joined Martin Luther King Jr. on the celebrated march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. In 1968, Tucker became chair of the Pennsylvania Black Democratic Committee. That year she received the first of many political appointments when Philadelphia’s Mayor James H.J. Tate named her to the Board of Adjustment of the Philadelphia Zoning Commission. Two years later the Pennsylva­nia Democratic Party made her vice chair, and the following year Tucker was called by Governor Milton J. Shapp to become Pennsylvania’s secretary of the commonwealth – the first African American in the country to serve as a state secretary. During her tenure she sought and secured the appointment of African Americans and women to judgeships and other offices and was instrumental in instituting profound policy and legislative changes in affirma­tive action and voter registration by mail. After the disappointment and upheaval of her abrupt firing as secretary, Tucker – with characteristic determination and strength – renewed her efforts to promote social justice, at first in a primary bid for lieutenant governor, and then as president of the National Federation of Democratic Women.

She has served as vice chairman of the Pennsylva­nia Democratic State Committee, the Pennsylvania Black Democratic Committee, and the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee. The list of her activities includes service on the board of directors of the Philadelphia YWCA; the New School of Music; the Urban Coalition, the United Fund, the Philadelphia Tribune Charities, Inc.; the Commonwealth Board of the Medical College of Pennsylvania; Messiah College; and the national board of directors for People United to Save Humanity (PUSH).

Tucker has been honored with awards from the NAACP Freedom Fund Award, the National Asso­ciation of Television and Radio Artists, Martin Luther King Service and Achievement, and the Philadelphia Chapter of B’nai B’rith. She has been awarded honorary degrees from Villa Maria College in Erie, Pennsylvania, and Morris College in Sumter, South Carolina.

In addition, she founded and co-founded organi­zations to help African Americans gain better access to political and other professional careers through the National Political Congress of Black Women and the Bethune-DuBois Fund. Tucker’s dedication to improving the life and environment of African Americans has recently led her to speak out against gangsta rap, and its powerful influences upon youth, and what she views as its ultimately devastating impact on the black community.

Her work as an advocate for social justice contin­ues uninterrupted. Now in her eighth decade, she is as outspoken and tireless as when she gave her first impassioned speech in Philadelphia many years ago. “People need to be inspired,” she believes. As long as that is true, DeLores Tucker will never stop.

This recent interview with C. DeLores Tucker was conducted especially for Pennsylvania Heritage in her office at the National Political Congress of Black Women, Washington, D.C. The office has since been moved to Silver Spring, Maryland.


You’re the first African American secretary of state in the nation. What was it like getting started in politics?

In the beginning, when I took the risk of entering public office, I got some criticism from a lot of people who thought they were savvy in politics. They were thinking: “Where did you come from?” But I was a young person, a young person given a chance to prove myself, and I hope I did.

You were the daughter of a preacher and the tenth of eleven children. What impact has your family had on your life and your activism?

My parents are my roots. They were from the Bahamas, the island of Eleuthera in Tartan Bay. They were grounded in religious faith and they taught us that with God all things are possible. In the Bible, someone asks, What is required of my life? And the answer given is, To do good, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. That’s what my parents taught, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.

What particular incident made you realize you wanted to devote your life to public service?

In my home we always had white and black at the [dinner] table. The missionaries were whites. We went to white churches. This was because my mom and dad and his three brothers who came to America were Plymouth Brethren, a sect that originated in Scotland. My maiden name, Nottage, is Scottish. They somehow got to the island and mixed, so that’s my heritage. The Plymouth Brethren were just plain gospel people, and they were white, black, all colors.

When I was about twelve I went to a conference held by my father’s brother who was a minister in Detroit. I went into a store to buy a sandwich and sit down, and they told me I couldn’t do that. I wanted to know why and all they said was “you know better.” A little after this I was in Maryland attending my brother’s college graduation. We went into a restaurant there and again I ordered a sandwich and sat down to eat it. A white gentle­man said to me, “You know better than that.” I really didn’t know what he meant, because I hadn’t had that experience. “You know what I mean,” he repeated. And I said, “No, I don’t.” “Well, you can’t sit down here,” he said. They wrapped the sandwich, but I walked out. I was feeling bad.

When did you start speaking out?

It started when I learned that they wouldn’t allow black players from one of the major league teams to stay at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. I learned this through the wife of Judge Wimbish [the Chief of Elections in Philadel­phia]. His wife knew my sister, who had a music studio in the city. Wimbish worked with the mayor, Joe Clark, who mentioned to me that there was a rally in front of the hotel. I guess because I was the daughter of a minister, and knew how to speak and was the choir director and the organist and the pianist, and conducted young people quite a bit at the church – that I decided to speak at the rally. In front of the hotel they had a flatbed truck
and I got on it. That was my first speech against discrimination.

And that started your activism?

Yes, and there was another important incident that happened shortly after I married [William Tucker]. We had been friends for four years, and after my husband came home from military basic training we got married [in 1951] when I was twenty-three. We were in Richmond, or some­where near there. And here my husband was in his uniform, getting ready to go overseas to fight for his country. It was very hot and we stopped at a place to get something cool to drink and they wouldn’t serve him. That really had an impact on me. So afterwards, it became clear in my mind that some things that were wrong needed to be righted.

In 1959, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. became the president of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP. We had met him before then. He was a young lawyer – I used to call him “Slim.” He asked me to chair the Legal Defense and Educational Fund. And of course I accepted his call and began to work for him. I put together a committee of one hundred and we started raising money in any way we could. I was out every day, selling tickets, going on corners, things I had never done before. We provided the financial fuel that carried the organization during Higginbotham’s leadership. In fact, the Philadelphia NAACP got the award that same year for raising the most money in the country.

You met President Kennedy?

Yes. First I got involved working for his presidential campaign with Endicott [Chub] Peabody [who became governor of Massachusetts in 1963] and later I was a delegate to his White House Conference on Civil Rights. I felt he was a man who understood that government must serve people, particularly those who are in need – the elderly, the children, the sick. He also convinced me that he would be inclusive and make certain that his government represented all people. And I’m proud, when I look at some of the appointments that he made, that he kept that vow. He was very progressive and he spoke to the issues that would help provide a better quality of life for everyone.

Was Leon Higginbotham your mentor?

Well, we were the same age. He was more a colleague whom I respected deeply and, l think, the respect was mutual. I did have models – Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman – women of strong faith. And as I grew older I wished that I could have met Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. She was the daughter of former slaves, but she had great faith in God and she was strong. In 1904, she opened a school for black girls in Florida and the institution she started is still with us today [in 1923 the school became coedu­cational and is now called Bethune­-Cookman College]. And Esther and Deborah in the Bible, those two women I look at as having the faith and courage to do what you have to do.

Your motivation came from within?

I had the example of my mother. My mother was always giving. I’m like that, I may not even have, but I give. Everything in the Bible – I lived it: “It is more blessed to give than to receive. “Love your enemies. “Do good to other people.” I can endure because of my faith, because suffering is redemption. Trust in God. You don’t have to worry about anything. He works it out.

You did march with Martin Luther King Jr.?

Yes. That was in March of 1965. Dr. King led thirty thousand people from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to fight for fair voting rights. There’s a picture of me on one side of him and Coretta King on the other. I marched with Dr. King because I felt – even though I was working with the NAACP and Leon Higginbotham – when I heard the march was taking place in the bowels of the South – the Confederacy – that I had to get there. There was a compulsion in me. My husband wouldn’t let me go at first. He told me that if they put dogs or branding irons on me he’d spend the rest of his life looking for whoever did it. He wouldn’t let me go and I was so frustrat­ed. Then I found out that a group of ministers was going on a plane and I said, “Now all of these ministers going in that plane, you know God’s going to protect them; let me go with them.” And after I insisted and begged, he said okay. And I got on the plane and the Philadel­phia Tribune sent someone to take a picture of all of us leaving.

During the march, the rains came down – poured down at one point, and I had to go to the side to rest myself. White hate was there – taunts and nasty words: “Drown you rat, drown” and “Get back where you came from.” Then I saw a young man, a white gentleman. He was on a crutch, and I looked at his arm and his crutch and one leg and I thought, God, if he can do it with one leg and he’s white, how much more are You going to give me strength. And later a white priest turned around and looked at me and said, “Give me your hand and let me help you along the way.” And I thought, “Here there is white hate, but here there is also white love.” And then I looked up and I said about those filled with hatred: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And the National Guard were lined up with their bayonets and their rifles. I looked on the porches at some of the old faces of women and men sitting there and I could see in their eyes that they knew we were marching to liberate them. I remember saying, either in my heart or out loud, “Pharaoh Wallace [Governor George Wallace], let our people go.”

It was a tremendous experience. I remember Dr. King telling us not to be despondent and to pray a prayer of faith. So it was a holy march. After that I began participating in marches all over the country.

What do you think about racism in the present time?

The march from Selma to Montgomery took place in 1965. Things now have changed for the worse, I think. I believe the clock is being turned back. But you had at that time a president in the White House who set the tone for the country. And the tone in 1965 was “We shall overcome.” Tears came to my eyes when President Johnson said from the well of the Congress that we shall overcome. The President was in the forefront; just sending the troops down to Alabama. There could have been a lot of bloodshed on that march, but because of the leadership there wasn’t.

And then, in 1968, Philadelphia Mayer James H. J. Tate gave you an important appointment?

Yes, he appointed me as the first black ever to serve on the Board of Adjustment of the Philadel­phia Zoning Commission-it was a major, major appointment.

Tell me about your first meeting with Milton Shapp.

When Milton Shapp decided to run for governor in 1970 someone working in his campaign suggested I meet with him. I had studied him. First of all, I knew he would understand the discrimination that we, as blacks, felt because he had changed his name from “Shapiro” to “Shapp” The name “Shapiro” did not get him the kind of responses he needed when he was getting involved with business. I had heard the story that as soon as he changed his name, the doors opened. So I didn’t have to tell him segregation and discrimination existed. The other thing I knew from his history was that he had helped fund the college aid program that helped more than one hundred youngsters from minority groups to attend college.

When we met I told him, “I’ll work for you. And all I want from you is to promise me that you will make your government responsive to women and minorities.” I told him I had been marching in Pennsylvania. You know, we had marched, not only in Alabama and Mississippi and Washington, D.C., but in Pennsylvania. We stood on the steps and said, “Let us in or we’ll come in if you don’t open up these doors.” And I said to Milton Shapp, “I’m tired of marching. And if you will become a governor who will open up your doors and open your administration to women and minorities, in proportion to their number in the state, percent­age-wise, then I will work for you.” And he promised me that he would. So I supported Shapp, even though I was on the zoning board and the mayor and the Democratic Party were not endors­ing him.

What was one of your proudest accomplishments as Secretary of the Commonwealth?

I think the first was getting the voter registra­tion by mail legislation because that would enable usually disenfranchised people to become involved in the process. It would also help people to elect candidates who would respond to their interests and issues. Even if they didn’t use it, at least it was there for them – a tool that everyone could use. The second was placing more minorities and women in government than had ever been there before, and particularly the judges. That was a record – to appoint that many [federal] judges.

Besides these two accomplishments you were also very involved in the first Affirmative Action program in the state.

Nine months after the governor appointed me in September 1971, a professional black woman whom I had recommended for a job was insulted by Sam Begler [the Governor’s Secretary of Personnel]. I went to Begler and told him that this woman had helped me to win Shapp’s battle in the primary. He said he offered her a job for five thousand dollars a year. I said, “That’s an insult to her.” Begler didn’t think so. When he said that, I walked right upstairs and said: “Governor, this is what happened to a woman who helped me to deliver votes in Pittsburgh.” And Shapp told me, “Well, then, if that’s what he said –” So I went to my office and wrote out my resignation and took it to him. That’s how little my job meant to me after he broke his word. “Gover­nor,” I said, “you once promised me something – to open up doors for minorities and women.”

He called that evening saying he hadn’t announced my resignation and he wasn’t accepting it and asked what could he do to get me back. I told him, “The only way I’ll come back is if you sign an executive order setting forth an Affirmative Action council.”

“You draft it.” That was his response. The elements of the executive order were that the council would include a majority of women and minorities directly responsible to the governor. And its mission was to look at every department of government to make sure it met the criteria that he promised me – percent­age-wise proportion of women and minorities.

Governor Shapp asked you to leave your office abruptly in 1977.

That was my biggest disappoint­ment – having the forces that opposed what I saw as my progressive leadership win a victory in forcing my departure. And the way I was told, you know – I was in Puerto Rico, about to become the president of the National Association of State Secretaries. My father was there, he was one hundred years old, or about that age. Everything was ready. And right then I got the call to return to Harrisburg. [Tucker was dismissed from office by Governor Shapp in 1977 in the wake of a controversy relating to honoraria she received for speaking engagements. The Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office later reviewed the evidence and did not bring charges against Tucker.]

And soon after that you were able to pick up the pieces and go on with your work?

Yes, I had to do that, you know. My work had to go on.

Do you think activism has changed?

Yes. The legislators – the leaders aren’t being challenged. Where there is no protest, there is no progress. You need only one person to challenge a wrong. Rosa Parks was just one person. A whole movement followed from what she did.

I’ve challenged this gangster rap out there by myself. Dionne Warwick and Melba Moore told me about it, wanted my help, but I’m out there by myself. Getting arrested. But I’m going to fight because it’s right. God has sent me all I need to handle the battle. I promise you that this gangsta porno rap is going to die or I’m going to die trying to stop what they do to those kids. I know about a little girl, six years old. She’s a gangster. She’s got the cult of a gangster. They had to put her out of school because she used that [gangsta rap] language. People told their children not to play with her. She was a social leper at six. That’s what this music has done. I told black people, “This gangsta rap is our fault because we never said ‘never again,’ as the Jews did. I say we should follow their example.

What makes you feel proud about being a Pennsylvanian?

I’m very proud of being a Pennsyl­vanian and I’m still an ambassador. I was made an ambassador [Philadelphia’s ambassador to Washington, D.C.] by Mayor W. Wilson Goode. I’m proud of the state and I’m also proud of our great heritage. It was founded by men and women of the Quaker faith, which gave Pennsylvania, I think, its great spirit. It’s the birthplace of the nation. The symbols of America – liberty and justice – are right here. That heritage is something that I think we need to continue to be proud of and try to export to other states in this great nation and around the world.


For Further Reading

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America In the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Clinton, Hillary Rodham. It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Fager, Charles E. Selma 1965: The Town Where the South Was Changed. New York: Scribner, 1974.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth. A Life, A Symbol. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Riches, William T. Martin. The Civil Rights Movement: Struggle and Resistance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Ro, Ronin. Gangsta: Merchandising the Rhymes of Violence. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Wexler, Sanford. The Civil Rights Move­ment: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts On File, 1993.

Wofford, Harris. Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.


Marilyn Levin, of Middle Paxton Township, Dauphin County, worked as an assistant to C. Delores Tucker from 1973 to 1976. She received her bachelor’s of arts degree from the Pennsylvania State University. In the private sector she enjoyed a career as a stock broker, and in Pennsylvania public service worked for the Commission for Women, and the Depart­ments of Auditor General and Labor and Industry. She currently holds a position in the Bureau of Archives and History, Pennsylva­nia Historical and Museum Commission