Cora Tucker (1938-1997)
Vol. 19, No. 2, 1997 pp. 30-31
On June 21, 1997, Cora Lee Mosley Tucker, a long-time community activist and educator from Halifax, Virginia, died.
Tucker led a life of tireless activism, most of which was devoted to challenging the long-established relationships of power in her home county in rural South Central Virginia.
“Cora was a major force in the conscience of Virginia politics,” remembers University of Virginia professor Paul Gaston, who served with Ms. Tucker for many years on SRC’s Executive Committee.
“Every community needs a Cora Tucker,” noted Parren J. Mitchell, the former U.S. Representative from Maryland who helped launch Tucker’s career as an activist in the 1970s by enrolling her in a course on community research at Harvard. “Cora Tucker has been an indefatigable worker on behalf of minorities, the poor, and the working poor.”
Tucker lived in Halifax County all her life. She was born there in 1938. Her father, a Pullman conductor, died when she was three, leaving her mother with nine small children. To keep the family together, they all farmed–sharecropped–tobacco and corn. When she was seven-teen, Cora married Clarence Tucker, a farmer, and together they raised seven children.
Although she devoted much of her time in the 1960s and early 70s to raising her children, she became increasingly involved in the civil rights movement, attending rallies and marches in Virginia and in Washington, DC.
Tucker said it was the treatment she received as a young child that made her “want to make some changes.” Growing up black in Halifax County in the 1940s and ’50s was “pure hell,” she said.
“We caught heck growing up in Southside Virginia as sharecroppers,” she remembered in a 1992 interview. “I vowed then that I was going to learn about help for poor people and was going to tell everyone how to apply for help, where to apply, and would help them take on the racist class system that keeps poor and black people on their knees.”
Tucker began making good on that vow in the 1970s. Encouraged by Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan–whom she heard speak in Washington–and aided by Rep. Mitchell, Tucker joined with friends and scores of black students in Halifax County to form a grassroots organization called Citizens for a Better America. The group immediately began surprising and angering the entrenched white officials.
The group’s first action–a campaign to build an integrated recreational center for youth–was followed by voter registration drives and surveys of the county’s public and private minority employment practices CPA filed successful formal complaints against the local governing bodies’ spending of revenue sharing monies and against the school system’s discriminatory hiring practices.
The group also criticized Halifax Democrats for being controlled by the same tight group of white men; that was borne out in 1979 when it was learned they had inadvertently re-elected a dead man to the local Democratic Committee. By 1981, when she was running as a write-in protest candidate for governor, a Tidewater Virginia reporter wrote that Tucker had “created waves like no black leader before her in rural Halifax County and the small city of South Boston.” (For a portrait of Tucker’s activist work, see the October/December 1985 issue of Southern Changes.)
By the mid-1980s, Cora Tucker and CBA had in-
volved themselves with a range of black community needs including paving roads, integrating the Agricultural Extension Agency’s Home Demonstration Clubs, and boycotting white-owned businesses to force them to hire more blacks. In 1983, Tucker led SRC’s Co-op Democracy Project in Halifax. The project challenged the all-white board of the Mecklenberg Electric Co-op, which had simply been re-electing themselves for years (see Southern Changes, Fall/Winter 1996). Tucker also got involved in environmental issues when she formed a coalition to stop an uranium mine nuclear waste dump from opening. In 1986, Mother Jones magazine named Tucker one of the “10 Heroes of Hard Times.”
Tucker remained a vital grassroots leader in the 1990s while accepting regional and national leadership positions including the chair of Grassroots Leadership, membership in the Black Leadership Roundtable, appointment to the Rules Committee of the Democratic Party, membership on SRC’s Executive Committee, and membership on the board of directors for the Virginia NAACP and Civic Responsibility Southside Virginia. She also worked with the National Toxics Campaign and the National Black Women’s Caucus. In these and many other organizations, Cora Tucker became a national speaker who gave lectures, classes, and workshops on grassroots leadership and community organizing.