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Remembering civil rights champion Timuel Black

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Timuel Black came to Chicago from Alabama as a baby just a month after Chicago's 1919 race riots. As he once told NPR's Code Switch...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR PODCAST)

TIMUEL BLACK JR: Blacks began to come North for three basic reasons. One was to escape the tyranny and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan - two, to be able to vote without fear. And three was to get better education for their children.

SIMON: Tim Black became a union organizer who fought at the Battle of the Bulge in Europe and for civil rights on the South Side of Chicago, became an ally of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an inspiration to Barack Obama, a historian of Black life in America, the civil rights movement and jazz. He died this week, beloved and venerated, at the age of 102.

Natalie Moore of WBEZ in Chicago knew Tim Black well, and she joins us now. Natalie, thanks so much for being with us.

NATALIE MOORE, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: There's a story Tim used to tell (laughter) about something he insisted he said when he was 8 months old and a baby in Birmingham. I guess we got to be careful in telling it, so I'll leave that to you.

MOORE: Well, we can't use four-letter swear words on the air. But the way the story goes, he looked around and said, I'm getting out of here. His mother said, that boy can't change his diapers, and told her husband, I guess we better follow him.

SIMON: (Laughter).

MOORE: And even though he was born in Alabama, he was a Chicagoan.

SIMON: Yeah.

MOORE: And he used that story to illustrate that he was the grandson of slaves, the son of sharecroppers, who wanted to leave the oppressive clutches of Jim Crow and settle in Chicago on the South Side in the Black Belt.

SIMON: And he fought at the Battle of the Bulge. But he didn't really want to go into the U.S. military on principle, did he?

MOORE: No. But what I also think is noteworthy is how he felt when he came back. And he was part of the Double V campaign, which for African Americans meant victory abroad and victory at home. And how can you fight Nazis abroad and come home to second-class citizenry? And he often talked about how he came back home angry. And what he did with that anger was turn that into a life of civil rights and public service. And he said, if we're going to march for freedom the way we did in Paris, then we're going to march on Washington.

SIMON: Natalie, in this beautiful piece that you wrote on the WBEZ website, you called him an honorary grandfather.

MOORE: Well, he probably had thousands of honorary grandchildren.

SIMON: (Laughter).

MOORE: But he always made you feel special. Even before I started working at WBEZ, I would seek him out to do interviews because what made him unique wasn't just that he was a scholar, but he lived these experiences, too. So if I wanted to talk about, for example, displacement of African Americans and Black communities - he's the first person who told me about the term Negro removal, which was a play on urban renewal. And he could talk about these things because he remembered them. But he also committed to scholarship as a professor in the junior college system here in Chicago.

He was so generous with his time. You didn't have to know someone to know someone to get to him. And him calling a lot of journalists and thinkers and artists in Chicago his honorary grandchildren made us feel like we were carrying his legacy and that he saw his work through us.

SIMON: Yeah. What does Tim Black leave in your heart?

MOORE: I think that we still thought that he was immortal even though we knew this day was coming. He set a template for a lot of people who do scholarship but want to be relevant in community. It is also sad because, you know, he didn't have any contemporaries. This is the end of an era of remembering so many of these experiences. And the other thing that he was very clear about was he did not want African Americans, particularly young people, to be ashamed of being descended from slavery.

SIMON: Yeah. On the contrary.

MOORE: Yeah. He was like, we are the best and the brightest.

SIMON: Natalie Moore, our colleague at WBEZ in Chicago, speaking of Timuel Black, who died this week at the age of 102. Natalie, thanks so much for being with us.

MOORE: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WEBSTER'S "THAT'S ALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.