In a span of just 19 days, the world lost three giants: former Congressman and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, singer-songwriter Aretha Franklin and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. While there had been news reports in recent months that Franklin was gravely ill, the deaths of Dellums and Annan were as unexpected as they were shocking.
I had the pleasure of first meeting Dellums, co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), while employed by the late Rep. Louis Stokes. As members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, we immediately established a lasting friendship. First elected to Congress as an anti-Vietnam War candidate, he later led a 15-year effort to enact U.S. sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid government.
During his first campaign for Congress, Vice President Spiro Agnew labeled Dellums “an out and out radical,” which he accepted as a badge of honor.
“If it’s radical to oppose the cruelty of the Vietnam War, if it’s radical to oppose racism and sexism and all other forms of oppression, if it’s radical to want to alleviate poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness and other forms of human misery, then I am proud to be a radical,” said Dellums, who became the first African-American chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services.
I was blessed to briefly meet the legendary and undisputed “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin, at a Capitol Hill reception in 1984 and again during the 1992 National Democratic Convention in New York. Both encounters, despite their brevity, were nonetheless memorable. As many who actually knew Franklin have stated since her passing, if you ever found yourself in the same room with her, you immediately felt you were in the presence of royalty. I felt it.
Franklin began her career as a child singing gospel at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was minister. She learned to play the piano by ear at a very young age and upon the sudden death of her mother, Barbara, when she was 10, was raised by her grandmother Rachel and others, including singer Mahalia Jackson.
The Rev. Franklin was not only a well-known preacher, but also active in the cvil rights movement. Her neighbor and childhood friends included Smokey Robinson, who would also go on to become an internationally acclaimed recording artist. As a result, she was exposed at a very young age to the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a frequent visitor to her home. Later Franklin frequently traveled with Dr. King across the south, often performing with Harry Belafonte and others, raising money to keep the movement financially afloat, including meeting payroll.
I only met Annan once. He was at the Waldorf Astoria in New York and exiting a meeting with Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Our exchange was a very brief handshake and introduction. He was dressed immaculately and carried himself with an air of confidence and determination. Furthermore, upon meeting Annan, it was immediately clear to me that he was comfortably knowledgeable on all of the oft-complex issues of international diplomacy that crossed his desk. He left me with no doubt whatsoever that he was in charge.
Born in Ghana, Annan became one of the world’s most celebrated diplomats as well as a charismatic symbol of the U.N. According to Politico, “His aristocratic style, cool-tempered elegance and political savvy helped guide his ascent to become its seventh secretary-general, and the first hired within.”
Annan was the first African-born person to serve in the post and in 2001, he and the UN were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The New York Times, in its obituary, said Annan “redefined the United Nations.” In paying tribute to him, former President Barack Obama stated, “Long after he had broken barriers, Kofi never stopped his pursuit of a better world, and made time to inspire and motivate the next generation of leaders.”
As I reflect on the lives of these three giants, I am reminded of Henry W. Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life”:
“Lives of great men (and women) all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.”
Thank you, Ron Dellums, Aretha Franklin and Kofi Annan. You have each left your “footprints on the sands of time.” Now rest in Heaven knowing you made this world a better place. May each of us not only aspire to, but succeed, in doing the same during our time on earth.
Cooper is president of Cooper Strategic Affairs, Inc.