The year 2013 saw the passing of noted political leaders (Nelson Mandela, Hugo Chávez), iconic sports figures (Ken Norton, L.C. Greenwood) and talented entertainers (Bobby “Blue” Bland, George Duke). But it was the deaths of the less famous—Jonathan Ferrell, Renisha McBride and Kendrick Johnson that reminded us we still have a ways to go for equal justice.
The Nigerian author was a titan of African literature, whose writings provided a different perspective of the continent at a time when its story was told primarily through a Western lens. His seminal work, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, would become an instant classic and be taught in classrooms around the world.
The NBA Hall of Fame center would probably be more of a household name if not for the fact that he played in the shadow of legends Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Bellamy, who may be best remembered for being traded from the New York Knicks before they went on their championship run in the 1970s, was among the league’s leading scorers and rebounders.
Bobby “Blue” Bland
The legendary blues balladeer’s soulful style influenced everyone from R&B singer Otis Redding to rockers the Allman Brothers. The hip-hop generation became familiar with the singer after Jay Z sampled Bland’s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” on his 2001 album, The Blueprint.
Byrd, a pioneering jazz trumpeter who recorded with such legendary artists as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk in the 1950s, eagerly stretched across musical boundaries, branching into R&B, funk, soul and even rap, with some of his music finding its way into songs by Public Enemy, Nas and Erykah Badu.
The North Carolina civil rights attorney survived multiple fire bombings while winning key civil rights cases before the Supreme Court, including 1971’s Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, a decision that approved forced busing, which brought an end to government-sanctioned segregation in Southern schools. In 1984 he became president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The fiery Venezuelan president was a source of constant irritation to the United States government but was beloved by many in his country, especially the Afro-Venezuelans who appreciated that Chávez openly embraced his African roots. During his tenure, he established May as Afro-Descendant Month and May 10 as Afro-Venezuelan Day.
Collins was the first African-American woman to represent Illinois in Congress. She won a special election after her husband, U.S. Rep. George Collins, died in a plane crash in 1972. She retired in 1997. She was also the second female to head the Congressional Black Caucus, from 1979 to 1981.
The versatile keyboardist-producer worked with a wide range of artists, from the king of pop, Michael Jackson, to avant-garde rocker Frank Zappa to jazz legends Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins.
Ricky “Lord Infamous” Dunigan
Dunigan, who died of a heart attack, was a founding member of the rap group Three 6 Mafia. The group won an Oscar for best original song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” featured in the 2005 film Hustle & Flow. It was the second hip-hop song to win an Oscar after Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” won in 2002.
With emotions still raw after George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict for killing unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin, Ferrell’s shooting death—at the hands of a North Carolina police officer while the former FAMU football player sought help after a car crash—left some African Americans wondering if it was even safe for black men to dial 911. Unfortunately, Ferrell would not be the last black person shot while seeking help this year.
William H. Gray III
The Philadelphia Baptist minister-turned-congressman served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1979 to 1991. At one point he was the highest ranking black lawmaker in the country, when he was chosen as majority whip in 1989, the third-ranking House leadership position. While in Congress, he advocated for education and the poor. He left Congress to become president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, where he led a record-breaking fundraising effort.
Greenwood was a defensive end who played alongside “Mean Joe” Greene, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ famous “Steel Curtain,” who helped lead the team to four Super Bowl wins in the ‘70s.
Griffith was a welterweight and middleweight boxer who struggled with his sexuality and was haunted by the 1962 death of boxer Benny Paret, who died after a brutal bout with Griffith. Prior to the fight, Paret had used a gay slur. Griffith would continue to fight and eventually be inducted into the boxing Hall of Fame. Though he never admitted being gay, Griffith did discuss his sexuality in 2005 with the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, telling the magazine, “I will dance with anybody. I’ve chased men and women. I like men and women both.”
The jazz drummer pioneered the “cool jazz” sound of California in the 1950s. He played with the Count Basie Orchestra and toured with jazz great Lena Horne, and he would continue to tour and also move into teaching in the 1990s. He was also the brother of the late Bernie Hamilton, who was best known for his role as Captain Dobey in the ’70s cop drama Starsky & Hutch.
Otis “Damon” Harris
Harris joined the legendary Motown group the Temptations at age 21, more than a decade younger than any of the other members. He had to go by the name “Damon” because he shared a first name with founding member Otis Williams. Harris would earn three Grammys with the group before leaving in 1975.
Havens was a rare breed, an African American performing in the mostly folk scene of the ‘60s. He vaulted to fame as the first performer at Woodstock in 1969. He wasn’t originally scheduled to open the iconic music festival, and when he ran out of songs, he improvised a tune by chanting the word “freedom” and mashing it up with the lyrics to “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” The moment would become a highlight of the Woodstock documentary.
The mysterious death of the Georgia teen, who was found wedged inside a gym mat, has left his grieving family searching for answers. The county sheriff’s office claimed the teen died while retrieving a sneaker, but his family questioned whether the mostly white department did a thorough investigation. In October the feds stepped in, promising to find out the truth about Kendrick’s death.
The ferocious and outspoken defensive end not only excelled at crushing quarterbacks behind the line of scrimmage, he coined the term to describe it—“sack.” Jones, who was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1980, was a member of the Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome. His signature move, the head slap, was so dangerous it would eventually be banned by the league.
Chris “Mac Daddy” Kelly
Kelly, who died of an overdose, was one half of ’90s hip-hop duo Kris Kross, who were famous for wearing their clothes backward and for the 1992 hit track “Jump.” Kelly and Chris Smith were 13 years old when they were discovered in an Atlanta mall by producer Jermaine Dupri in 1991.
The martial artist was best known for his role in the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon in 1973. Kelly was a naturally gifted athlete who excelled at football, baseball and track. In 1971 he won four martial art championships in a row, which put him on the radar of the producer for Enter the Dragon. Kelly would also star in the martial arts flick Black Belt Jones and the blaxploitation film Three the Hard Way.
Lynch was the political strategist who helped make David Dinkins New York City’s first black mayor in 1989. In 1992 he helped bring the Democratic National Convention to New York and also ran Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in the state that year.
When Mandela, who was imprisoned for attempting to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid regime, was released after 27 years, he could have emerged bitter and hardened by his imprisonment on Robben Island. Instead, through incredible grace, humility and a determination to see his country free, Mandela would become the South Africa’s first black president and an inspiration for millions around the world.
When the Detroit teenager was shot in the face by a white homeowner while seeking help after a car accident, initial claims of self-defense and “Stand your ground” brought back horrible memories of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. But a judge recently ruled that the homeowner, Theodore Wafer, would stand trial for second-degree murder and manslaughter charges. In making his ruling, the judge said that Wafer made a bad decision to shoot McBride and had “reasonable opportunities to defend himself,” including calling the police.
The speedy guard was a key member of the New York Knicks’ 1973 championship team, where he dished the ball to stars Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe.
Jazz pianist Miller was a respected bandleader and widely sought-after sideman, who played on hundreds of albums throughout the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s.
The actor was best known for his role as Mark Sanger, the ex-con-turned-assistant and driver for a wheelchair-bound detective played by Raymond Burr in the 1970s police drama Ironside.
As an essayist and cultural theorist, Murray didn’t see America as simply black and white. He believed that the black experience was critical to America culture, especially as expressed through jazz music. Jazz was “the embodiment of the American experience, the American spirit, the American ideal,” Murray is quoted as saying in Jazz: A History of America’s Music, the companion book to Ken Burns’ documentary series on PBS.
Best known for his role as the cranky restaurant owner Mr. Gaines on A Different World, Myers had a long list of TV and film credentials, including NYPD Blue, Touched by an Angel and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. He also appeared on Broadway in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Color Purple.
The former heavyweight champion is best remembered for the trilogy of fights with Muhammad Ali—including the March 1973 bout in which Norton broke Ali’s jaw and handed “The Greatest” his second defeat—as well as his epic losing battle with Larry Holmes in 1979, which is often cited as one of the greatest fights in boxing history.
When the former defensive back for the San Diego Chargers died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, he joined a macabre fraternity of former professional football players who had committed suicide. While it is unclear why Oliver killed himself, many former players who’ve committed suicide have shown signs of a degenerative brain disorder stemming from multiple blows to the head, which has led to memory loss, depression and dementia.
Powell was an etiquette expert and charm-school coach who taught Motown’s legendary stable of artists—from the Supremes to the Temptations—how to exhibit poise and grace on and off the stage.
Tabu Ley Rocherea
The Congolese singer-songwriter, whose birthday varies among sources, helped propel the sound of soukous—the Congolese rumba, which has roots in Cuban music—around the world.
Rogers was one of the five original voices of the Miracles and in recent years had been key to keeping the Motown group’s legacy alive by trademarking the name and touring the globe. He was also a songwriter, co-writing with Miracles mate Smokey Robinson, the Temptations’ first hit, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” in 1964.
The eight-time Gold Glove first baseman, who spent his pivotal years with the Boston Red Sox in the 1960s and ’70s, was nicknamed “Boomer” for the long homeruns he launched over ballpark walls.
The troubled grandson of Malcolm X, who died after being assaulted in Mexico City, struggled to live up to the legacy into which he was born. In 1997, at age 12, he was responsible for the death of his grandmother, Betty Shabazz, when he set her apartment on fire. He had been sent to live with his grandmother when he was 10, after his mother Qubilah was charged in a plot to kill Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Smith was the lead singer of R&B icons the Spinners, who initially were signed to Motown but really made their mark when they signed with Atlantic Records in 1971 at the suggestion of Aretha Franklin. Smith can he heard on a string of hits, including “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “Then Came You” and “Games People Play.”
The first daughter of Staples Singers patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples, Cleotha Staples’ distinctive voice formed the backbone of the group’s sound. Along with Pops and her siblings, Pervis, Yvonne and Mavis, she performed uplifting, gospel-infused R&B songs such as “Respect Yourself,” “I Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again.”
In 1963 Teague became one of the nation’s first black television journalists when he joined WNBC-TV in New York. He also aired his own weekly show, Sunday Afternoon Report, two years after he was hired.
Thornton was the first black woman to cover the White House for CBS News in 1977 and the first black co-host of NPR’s daily news show, All Things Considered, in 1982.
The jazz bassist performed with a variety of artists including Peggy Lee, Dexter Gordon, Buddy Rich and Quincy Jones.
Lee Thompson Young
The Disney star, who committed suicide, had his last role in the TNT series Rizzoli & Isles, on which he played Detective Barry Frost. He got his first break in the 2004 movie Friday Night Lights and is also remembered for his role in 2006’s Akeelah and the Bee.
Edward “Butch” Warren
The jazz musician was the house bass player for Blue Note Records in New York City, where he played for renowned artists Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock and Donald Byrd. He also toured with Thelonious Monk in the early ’60s. But he would disappear from the world of music as he struggled with drug addiction and mental illness.
Williams, whose playground style made him a dazzling NBA player but also turnover-prone, spent his 10 seasons playing first with the New York Knicks, then with the New Jersey Nets (as with the Knicks, he would return for a short second stint), the Kansas City Kings, the Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks. His post-NBA life included bankruptcy and homelessness before he returned to his hometown of Mount Vernon, N.Y., where he worked with youths at a recreational center.