Samuel L. Banks, the 64-year-old Baltimore educator who died unexpectedly yesterday, was what another generation would have called a "race man." Dr. Banks spoke out honestly and forcefully on behalf of African Americans. He didn't seem to care about consequences. He never minced words. He never compromised with the truth.
A race man.
We don't hear the term used much anymore, although it once was the highest possible compliment the African American tTC community could bestow on one of its own; the opposite of labeling a person an "Uncle Tom."
The term "race man" was used to describe persons who challenged the accepted, mainstream way of seeing things; persons who attacked injustice, stupidity and ignorance and kept on attacking even when the unjust and the stupid and the ignorant fought back.
Perhaps we do not hear of race men these days because the term has become outdated, a relic of the era before the modern civil rights movement. Or perhaps we do not use the term because so few deserve it.
Dr. Banks was one of the few.
He was a stately, dignified man with gentle mannerisms, square-rimmed glasses and a deliberate, scholarly way of speaking. He grew up in Norfolk, Va., received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Howard University in Washington, D.C. and earned a doctorate in educational administration from George Washington University.
He taught social studies in Baltimore public schools beginning in 1959 and worked his way up the educational hierarchy to become the school system's director of the department of compensatory and funded programs. Dr. Banks also earned a national reputation as an advocate for Afro-centric curriculum as one way of improving academic performance for black children.
But nothing in his official biography gives you a true picture of the man and his fierce, unswerving commitment to speaking out against injustice.
As a columnist, I came to know Dr. Banks both as one of my most loyal supporters and most relentless critics. For instance, a few years ago at a church in East Baltimore, I spoke at a community forum on media coverage of the black community. Dr. Banks sat in the front row as I observed that news organizations have an obligation to cover blacks fairly and accurately, but blacks have an obligation to call the media to task when mistakes are made. Dr. Banks listened patiently, then immediately went on the attack.
"Of what race are the decision-makers at your paper?" he demanded.
"What are their attitudes regarding black people?" he went on. "What have you personally done to change those attitudes?"
After the program, he rushed forward and shook my hand and explained that he meant nothing personal by his questions. "Some things just needed to be said," he told me.
In March, Dr. Banks and I participated in a televised panel discussion on the book "The Bell Curve" with a Johns Hopkins professor who agrees with that book's premise that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites. Dr. Banks had a way of looking pained -- wrinkled brow, pursed lips -- whenever he found something particularly "unfortunate."
"Unfortunate" was his genteel form of condemnation. He found a lot in "The Bell Curve" to look pained about that evening.
In an op-ed column for Black History Week last February, Dr. Banks outlined a 10-point contract for African Americans that could serve as a counterpoint to the Republicans' "Contract with America." He urged blacks to learn about their history, become active in the political process and find a spiritual foundation to guide their lives. Above all, he urged blacks to make reading a part of their daily routine.
"Your reading menu should include at least one black publication, a daily general circulation newspaper and a wide range of books," he said. He then recommended works by Carter G. Woodson, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He was, as I've said, a courageous man. A wise man.
And, in his honor, I will resurrect that highest of compliments: He was a race man.