Notables in Black Culture We Lost in 2012

From Whitney to Rodney King, we recall the folks in politics and culture who died this year.

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    Robert L. Carter

    Carter, who was a civil rights attorney for the NAACP, is best known for developing the legal strategy in cases that led to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954. Carter became NAACP general counsel in 1956 and would go on to win 21 of 22 cases that he argued before the Supreme Court. He died on Jan. 3 at age 94.


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    Eve Arnold

    Photographer Arnold captured iconic images of Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam and other black celebrities. Best known for her portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Arnold had the ability to capture celebrities in candid, intimate moments, which laid the foundation for celebrity photographers such as Annie Leibovitz. She died on Jan. 4 at age 99.

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    James Kriegsmann/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

    Jimmy Castor

    R&B singer and bandleader Castor, who had minor hits in the ’70s, will be best remembered as one of the first musicians to successfully sue hip-hop artists for sampling his music without permission. He won a suit against the Beastie Boys for sampling “The Return of Leroy (Part 1)” on their 1986 song “Hold It Now, Hit It.” With artists from Big Daddy Kane to Madonna sampling his music, he would earn more income from sampling than from his own music. He died on Jan. 16 of cardiac arrest. He was 71.

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    Johnny Otis

    Pioneering R&B singer, songwriter and bandleader Otis discovered Etta James, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard. Born to Greek immigrant parents, Otis decided early in life that he wanted to be black. Otis told the Los Angeles Times in 1979: “Yes, I chose because despite all the hardships, there’s a wonderful richness to black culture I prefer.” He died on Jan. 17 at 90 years of age.

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    Etta James

    James had one of the greatest voices of all time, with a range and suppleness that defied categorization. She easily moved from gritty blues to romantic R&B to smooth jazz. She turned “At Last,” first performed in 1941 by Glenn Miller, into a pop standard. It is her version that’s covered by modern-day divas from Beyoncé to Christina Aguilera. James died on Jan. 20 of leukemia. She was 73.


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    Camilla Williams

    Before Marian Anderson, there was Williams. Williams was the first black woman signed to a major U.S. opera company, and her 1946 debut in the New York City Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly came nearly a decade before Anderson’s performance at the New York Metropolitan Opera. The New York Times noted several reasons that Williams’ historic role has been mostly forgotten. She died on Jan. 29 at age 92.

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    Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

    Don Cornelius

    As creator, host and executive producer of Soul Train, Cornelius helped bring African-American music, culture and fashion into the homes of mainstream America. His legacy lives on, not only in the stars who gained a platform on his show but also in the Soul Train dance lines that are a staple of family barbecues and weddings across the country. Cornelius died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Feb. 1. He was 75.

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    Angelo Dundee

    Muhammad Ali’s cornerman Bundini Brown may have coined the phrase “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” but it was trainer Dundee who kept the heavyweight champ on his toes. Dundee became Sugar Ray Leonard’s trainer in 1977 and guided him to a welterweight championship in 1979. Dundee died on Feb. 1 at age 90.

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    Whitney Houston

    At the peak of her career, Houston’s pitch-perfect voice dominated the music charts throughout the ’80s, making her one of the top-selling artists of all time. In the ’90s she began acting in films, and while her debut in the movie The Bodyguard was just so-so, the soundtrack spawned several hits, including “I Will Always Love You” and “I Have Nothing.” Drugs and a troubled marriage to Bobby Brown began the downward spiral that would ultimately lead to her death on Feb. 11 in a Los Angeles hotel bathtub. Her death was attributed to accidental drowning and the effects of heart disease and cocaine use. She was 48.

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    AP Photo/HO, Martin-family photos

    Trayvon Martin

    Trayvon became a symbol for every young black man who had ever been deemed “suspicious” simply for being a young black man. On Feb. 26 Trayvon, 17, went to the store for Skittles and iced tea, and on his way home he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch coordinator who thought the teen was “up to no good.” Trayvon’s death launched a national debate on “Stand your ground” laws, which some argued gave white gun owners alibis after shooting unarmed people of color.


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    Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

    Elizabeth Catlett

    Catlett, a sculptor and printmaker, was considered one of the most important African-American artists of the 20th century. Her works, such as Sharecropper, embodied the struggles of African Americans and came to symbolize the civil rights movement. She was 96 when she died on April 2.

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    Gil Noble

    As the longtime producer and host of the award-winning public-affairs show Like It Is, Noble championed black causes and worked to dispel negative images of African Americans. Though the show aired only in the New York metro area, Noble attracted national and international luminaries for interviews. Noble died on April 5 from complications of a stroke he’d suffered in 2011. He was 80.

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    Adam Yauch

    As a member of the pioneering hip-hop trio the Beastie Boys, Adam “MCA” Yauch helped the group evolve from the frat-boy antics of its early days into political and social activists, addressing such issues as women’s rights and Tibetan independence. More significant, the Beastie Boys opened up the suburbs to hip-hop, making it safe for white kids to buy rap music. Yauch was 47 when he died of cancer on May 4.

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    Chuck Brown

    Brown was dubbed the “Godfather of Go-Go” for the funky, percussive genre he created that was a staple of the Washington, D.C., dance scene for more than 30 years. Though Brown and his group, the Soul Searchers, had a hit with “Bustin’ Loose” in 1979, the music never made much noise outside of Washington. Still, the genre did influence artists in other genres, including hip-hop. He died on May 16 of sepsis. He was 75.

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    Donna Summer

    Summer was the diva of disco, whose hits “Love to Love You Baby,” “Bad Girls” and “She Works Hard for the Money” defined a genre and helped drive disco into the mainstream. Though disco suffered a backlash, today’s popular EDM (electronic dance music) owes a debt to Summer for providing the foundation for its sound. Summer, 63, died of cancer on May 17.

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    Robin Gibb

    Gibb, along with his older brother, Barry, and twin, Maurice, made up the Bee Gees, one of the most successful pop groups in the disco era. The group’s eight songs featured on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack — including “Stayin’ Alive,” “You Should Be Dancing” and “Night Fever” — helped make the album one of the most successful in history. Gibb died of liver cancer on May 20 at age 62.

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    Rosa Guy

    Guy, a Trinidadian-born author based in New York, wasn’t afraid to confront tough issues of race, class, poverty, crime and sexuality in her novels for teenagers. One of her best-known trilogies — consisting of The Friends (1973), Ruby (1976) and Edith Jackson (1978) — deals with the daily lives of black adolescent girls. In 1950 she co-founded the Harlem Writers Guild, which focuses on publishing works by black writers. She died on June 3 of cancer. She was 89.

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    Herb Reed

    Reed was the last surviving member of the doo-wop group the Platters, which he founded in 1953. He sang bass in the five-member group, which recorded the hits “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Only You” and “The Great Pretender.” The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. He was 83 when he died on June 4.


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    Rodney King

    The amateur video of King’s beating by Los Angeles police officers seemed to finally capture proof of the excessive force about which African Americans had long complained. When three of the four officers were acquitted of all charges on April 29, 1992, the riots that erupted became the costliest in American history. During the riots, King appeared on TV with a simple plea: “Can we all just get along?” He died on June 17 of accidental drowning, with cocaine, alcohol, PCP and marijuana as contributing factors. He was 47.


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    Erica Kennedy

    Kennedy, a music writer, blogger and author, gained national attention in 2004 for her first novel, Bling, a satirical riff on the Cristal-fueled excesses of the hip-hop world. Her second novel, 2009’s Feminista, was a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. She died on June 13; she was 42.

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    Sylvia Woods

    When Woods, the “Queen of Soul Food,” opened her eponymous restaurant in 1962, she had an added motivation to succeed: Her mother had mortgaged the family farm in South Carolina to help Woods and her husband buy the location in Harlem. Woods’ Southern cuisine made her restaurant a favorite destination for dignitaries, tourists and locals. She would eventually launch her own food line and write two best-selling cookbooks. She died on July 19 at age 86.


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    Sherman Hemsley

    Hemsley turned dry-cleaning magnate George Jefferson into one of TV’s most iconic characters. As played by Hemsley, Jefferson was cocky, irreverent and unafraid of dealing with “the Man.” The character first appeared in All in the Family as an outspoken counterpoint to bigot Archie Bunker. In 1975 Hemsley moved on up with his own show, The Jeffersons, where he riffed on race, money and class for 11 seasons. He died of cancer on July 24 at age 74.

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    William Raspberry

    Raspberry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post for nearly 40 years, was an inspiration for generations of African-American commentators, with his unflinching views on race, crime, poverty and education. His nationally syndicated columns appeared in more than 200 newspapers. When he won the Pulitzer in 1994, he was the second black columnist to win the honor. He died on July 17 of prostate cancer. He was 76.

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    Al Freeman Jr. as Hon. Elijah Muhammad in Malcolm X (

    Al Freeman Jr.

    Freeman, star of stage and screen, was best known for his role as Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and as police captain Ed Hall in the soap opera One Life to Live. He joined the cast of OLTL in 1972, becoming one of the first African Americans in daytime television. In 1979 he was the first African-American male to win a Daytime Emmy for best actor. He died on Aug. 9 at age 78.

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    Michael Dokes

    Boxer Dokes was a flashy figure with a fondness for fedoras and fur coats who would rise up to become heavyweight champion in 1982. When he lost the title nine months later, he admitted using cocaine two days before the fight. Drug charges and stints in rehab would follow. In 2000 he would go to prison for attempted murder after the brutal beating of his girlfriend. He was paroled in 2008. He was 54 when he died of liver cancer on Aug. 11, a day after his birthday.

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    Meles Zenawi

    Zenawi was the prime minister of Ethiopia and a key ally in the United States’ fight to end Muslim extremism in Africa. Though Zenawi may have used repressive tactics to quash dissent, he helped turn Ethiopia into one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies. He died on Aug. 20, reportedly of liver cancer. He was 57.

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    Chris Lighty

    Lighty was a visionary hip-hop manager who helped turn the music of the streets into a commercial force. He arranged the 1997 Gap ad featuring LL Cool J, which helped launch many other product endorsements for rap stars. Lighty was a key negotiator in the 2004 deal that gave 50 Cent a stake in Glacéau, the makers of Vitaminwater. When Coca-Cola bought the brand three years later, 50 Cent reportedly earned $100 million. Lighty died on Aug. 30 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 44.

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    Michael Clarke Duncan

    Duncan earned an Oscar nomination playing a gentle giant of a man with the power to heal in the prison drama The Green Mile. He first got a taste of Hollywood working as a bodyguard for Will Smith, Martin Lawrence and others. At the time of his death, Duncan was engaged to Omarosa Manigault, the diva villain from the first season of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice. His last film, In the Hive, directed by Robert Townsend, opened in theaters on Dec. 14. He died on Sept. 3 after suffering a heart attack in July. He was 54.

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    R.B. Greaves on the cover of his 1969 self-titled album (via

    R.B. Greaves

    Greaves, who was a nephew of soul singer Sam Cooke, wrote and sang the 1969 hit song “Take a Letter, Maria.” It reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts. He died on Sept. 27 at age 68.

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    Emanuel Steward

    Steward was a legendary boxing trainer who discovered and mentored Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns. Steward was also a trainer for several other prominent boxers, including Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield and current heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko. In his hometown of Detroit, his Kronk Gym became a mecca for students of the “sweet science.” He was also a boxing analyst for HBO. He died on Oct. 25 of colon cancer; he was 68.

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    Milt Campbell

    At the age of 22, Campbell became the first African American to win a gold medal in the decathlon, at the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympics. Afterward, he would play one year in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns and several years in the Canadian Football League. He would go on to become a motivational speaker and start a school for underprivileged children. He was 78 when he died on Nov. 2 from complications of cancer and diabetes.

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    Louis Mélançon/Metropolitan Opera Archives via the New York Times

    Gloria Davy

    In 1958 Davy became the first African American to perform Aida at the New York Metropolitan Opera and was the fourth African American ever to perform on its stage. In 1954 the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born soprano replaced Leontyne Price as Bess in a touring version of Porgy and Bess, thus giving her significant exposure. She died on Nov. 28 at age 81.

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    Jovan Belcher

    Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins, 22, before killing himself at the team’s training facility in front of his coaches on Dec. 1. Their tumultuous relationship and its shocking end have spurred debates about the nation’s gun culture and domestic violence. Belcher was 25.

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    Dave Brubeck

    In 1959 legendary jazz composer and pianist Brubeck released Time Out, the first jazz album to sell a million copies. The album’s signature hit, “Take Five,” has been used in countless movies and TV shows and has been covered by many artists, including George Benson and Quincy Jones. In a career that spanned more than 70 years, he composed hundreds of songs and exposed the uninitiated around the world to jazz. He died on Dec. 5, a day before his 92nd birthday.


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    John A. Payton

    The world lost one of the most brilliant and well-respected civil rights attorneys to grace a courtroom when Payton died on March 22. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president and director-counsel argued the Gratz v. Bollinger case before the Supreme Court. He took the helm at the NAACP LDF in 2008, following in the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall.

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