2014 Remembrances: Honoring Some Exceptional Lives

Jan 1, 2015
Originally published on January 1, 2015 10:27 am

As we begin the new year, Code Switch takes a moment to look back at some of the extraordinary, influential and interesting people whom we lost in 2014.

Sam Greenlee

A native Chicagoan, Greenlee drew on his own experiences as one of the first black Foreign Service officers to write The Spook Who Sat By the Door. Published in 1969, the novel centers on a government conspiracy to eradicate black America and the well-trained army that the country's first black CIA agent — or "spook," in agency lingo — assembles to foil the plan.

The idea was intriguing enough that the novel was made into a 1973 movie that has gained a cult following. (The fact that the movie opened and then disappeared — all the copies of the film had been hijacked — inspired a documentary, Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat By the Door.

Greenlee lived quietly for several decades, but he was a constant presence in Chicago's black communities, writing and supporting his hometown's cultural life. A few years before he died, he told a Chicago radio journalist he couldn't have written the novel today. "The idea that street gangs that are now dope-dealing thugs would start a revolution is a historical absurdity," he snorted. "Now, when I wrote [The Spook Who Sat By the Door], the gangs had political consciousness." Greenlee kept his till the end. He died in Chicago on May 19.

Fred Ho

Ho was an avant garde jazz musician who didn't like to describe his work that way. He believed the term "jazz" was initially used to denigrate black musicians. Ho liked to refer to his genre as "Afro-Asian Futurism."

You couldn't miss him in a crowd: Ho always dressed colorfully, in brightly patterned clothes he often designed himself. The colors were often riotous, but the form — Mandarin-collared jackets that closed with silk frogs — were a direct reference to his Chinese heritage.

He was never one to hold his tongue or hide his opinions. Ho's father was a distinguished professor at the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts. As a child, Ho watched his father internalize the slights and outright racism he experienced at the school, and bring that anger home to his family. "So early on I became a fighter," he told Code Switch's Kat Chow. "A fighter both against the white establishment, white society, but also against our own kind that internalizes oppression."

Ho recorded several albums and wrote 12 operas over the course of his career. Some of those operas incorporated martial arts to create something vibrant and new. He was different things to different people, said jazz critic Bill Shoemaker. "I think if you took 10 people who really know Fred's music inside-out and you ask them, 'OK, what's Fred Ho's masterpiece?' I don't think you'd get a unanimous verdict," Shoemaker admitted. "But if you ask the same 10 people about artists who really change ... the term of engagement between artist and audience, then they would say 'Yep, that's Fred Ho.' "

Ho, diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2006, fought the disease with the same power and passion that he brought to his music. He underwent several surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy before dying at home in Brooklyn on April 12. He was 56 years old.

John Doar

To many Americans, Doar was an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. But when asked by C-SPAN in 2009 to describe his own work, he said, "I had the opportunity to work on a very important problem in American government." That understatement was typical Doar. The mission trumped the man, but that mission helped change the country.

He journeyed to Mississippi in 1963 and intervened between enraged young black mourners and heavily armed white police after the funeral of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers. "My name is John Doar — D-O-A-R. I'm from the Justice Department and anybody here knows what I stand for is right," Doar shouted into the angry crowd. Peace prevailed.

Doar also investigated the abduction and murders of three civil rights workers— Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner — in a case that riveted the country's attention. Much of Doar's career was spent trying to get authorities in Southern states to comply with federal desegregation laws, including taking down barriers to the ballot box for black voters. He is often referred to as the individual who created the groundwork for the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In the 1970s, Doar, who called himself a "Lincoln Republican," drafted the articles of impeachment that would lead to President Richard Nixon's resignation. Doar continued to practice law well into his 80s, and in 2012 was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama, who told the audience he might not be where he is today without Doar's work.

Doar died in his New York home on Nov. 11. He was 92 years old.

Chol Soo Lee

For Lee, the path to activism started with a struggle with the justice system. The Korean-American immigrant was charged with first-degree murder in 1973 in the shooting death of a San Francisco Chinatown gang leader. Although he professed innocence and did not fit the profile of the accused gunman, Lee was convicted on mostly circumstantial evidence. Six months into his incarceration, Lee killed a white supremacist inmate who he said attacked him first. That earned him the unenviable distinction of being the first Asian-American on death row.

In the late 1970s, journalist K.W. Lee investigated Chol Soo Lee's case, and wrote more than 100 articles about it that gained national attention. It galvanized the Asian-American community, and a defense committee was formed to press for Lee's release.

The conviction was finally reversed in 1983, but Lee was never given an explanation or an apology for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment, and the injustice haunted him.

He died on Dec. 3, from surgical complications, at age 62.

Ruby Dee

This versatile performer was known as much for her civil rights activity with husband Ossie Davis as for her acting. A native of Cleveland, Ruby Ann Wallace moved to New York City after her mother, Gladys, left the family and her father remarried. After graduating from Hunter College with a degree in romance languages, Dee headed for the theater.

She became the first African-American actress to perform lead roles at the American Shakespeare Festival. She was memorable opposite Sidney Poitier in the film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's classic play A Raisin in the Sun. In the 1960s and 1970s, she was a high-profile participant in the civil rights movement. She and Davis were friends of both Malcolm X — Davis delivered the assassinated leader's eulogy — and Martin Luther King Jr. For decades after, Dee remained a fierce activist, speaking out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

She received honors for her acting and her advocacy. They include an Academy Award nomination and a Screen Actors Guild award for Best Supporting Actress for the 2007 film American Gangster. Her work also garnered her the National Medal of Arts. Both she and her husband, who died in 2005, received 2004 Kennedy Center Honors, as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis in 2005.

Dee died on June 11, and her cremated remains were placed in the same urn that held her husband's ashes. The inscription on the front: "In this thing together."

Run Run Shaw

Most people outside East Asia may not know Run Run Shaw, but they have probably seen a few of his movies.

At one point, the Shaw Organisation (which Run Run led with his brother, Runme) produced some 40 movies a year, and the company has produced about 1,000 movies since 1958. It helped to make stars of many Asian actors, including Chow Yun Fat, who is known in the U.S. for his roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and in John Woo's bloody martial arts films such as The Killer and Hard Boiled. Shaw's Hong Kong television station, TVB, was the first free broadcast station in that city. It produced several hours of period costume dramas and soap operas avidly watched in and beyond Hong Kong.

Born in Shanghai to a successful textile merchant, Shaw became interested in film production as a young man. He and his brother formed a company and moved it to Singapore when upheaval in mainland China became too great. But as Hong Kong assumed primacy as the center of Asian film production, they moved again.

The movies were mostly martial arts dramas (Five Fingers of Death ring a bell?), and they were very profitable. Shaw built a large chain of movie theaters in Asia and the U.S., and enjoyed a storied mansion high above Hong Kong. He was known both for his hard-nosed business deals and his generous philanthropy. In 1977 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Shaw died at home in Hong Kong on Jan. 7, surrounded by his family. He was 106.

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