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Samuel L. Banks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Regular readers of this newspaper's letters to the editor knew Samuel L. Banks as an inveterate correspondent always ready to take on the powers-that-be with a rhetorical flourish that both enlightened and entertained.

Dr. Banks, who died Wednesday at 64, was for 36 years a teacher and administrator in the Baltimore City public schools. But it was through his innumerable letters to the editor, his feisty opinion-page pieces and his sometimes prolix prose that he became known to thousands of Marylanders as a tireless champion of equal opportunity.

Most people write letters to the editor to let off steam, express a personal opinion or simply for the thrill of seeing their name in print. The letters columns are a forum for all manner of complaints, grudges and passionate appeals as well as for the occasional gem of lucidity and sweet reason. A few people develop virtual second careers as letters column correspondents, vying with other letter writers and the newspaper's own staff members for pride of placement and frequency of publication.

For Dr. Banks, however, a letter to the editor or an opinion page article was a means to an end, not an end in itself. He addressed the issues of the day not out of vanity but because he believed fervently that change would never come unless the status quo was challenged. He made it his business to do so as forcefully as possible. He wanted to wipe out every trace of bigotry and discrimination so that the nation might at last fulfill its historic promise of justice and equal opportunity for all.

Applying the dictum of old-time labor leader Sam Gompers -- always demand more, more, more -- Dr. Banks brought to his advocacy an unquenchable demand for improvement in the lives of his fellow African Americans. This newspaper was his special focus. He would rise in righteous fury against news stories or editorials he considered unfair to his constituency or his several causes. Yet when writers displayed what he regarded as greater sensitivity, he would dispense gentlemanly praise before launching into a lecture of what could be done better. He was one of our most persistent bed bugs, albeit a beneficent bed bug. We suspect that description would please him.

Dr. Banks' style often mimicked the stately cadences of a church sermon. But he was fond of spicing up his phrases with unusual and sometimes arcane words that lent his expressions a peculiar dignity and sly humor. He knew readers delighted in his seemingly inexhaustible stock of adjectives, which he piled atop one another.

Editors could pare words, phrases or whole paragraphs from his letters and still have more than enough left to fill the allotted space. Dr. Banks' vision of America and its possibilities was as generous as his use of words, and as wise.

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