On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
From politicians and radio commentators to renowned authors and civil rights leaders, Washingtonians mourned the loss of many public figures in 2019.
Kojo remembers Washingtonians who passed away this year, and reflects on their legacies.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Adam Bernstein Obituaries Editor, Washington Post
- Maya Rockeymoore Cummings Former Chair, Maryland Democratic Party; Wife of Elijah Cummings
- Steve Roberts Journalist; Husband of Cokie Roberts
Remembering 2019's Homicide Victims
The Metropolitan Police Department recorded 162 homicides so far in 2019. Nearly 70 of the victims were under 26 years old.
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Today we'll be remembering Washingtonians, who passed away this year and what we can take away from the legacy's they leave behind. Joining me now is Adam Bernstein, Obituaries Editor for The Washington Post to talk about some of the Washingtonians we lost in 2019. Adam Bernstein, welcome. Good to see you again.
ADAM BERNSTEINThank you so much.
NNAMDIAdam, Herman Boone became the Head of the Football team for T.C. Williams High School head coach in the wake of the Civil Rights era as Alexandria sought to reduce racial imbalance by merging three high schools, George Washington, Hammond and T.C. Williams. He coached the team to a perfect season in 1971 and was later portrayed by Denzel Washington in the film "Remember the Titans."
WILL PATTONCoach Boone, the school board made the decision to put you on my staff. I didn't not hire you.
DENZEL WASHINGTONWell, I came up here to coach at GW. I didn't ask the schools to redistrict. I didn't ask to be assigned to your staff. So I guess we're both in a situation we don't want to be in, but I can guarantee you this, coach, I come to win.
PATTONWin? Coach Yoast, here has been nominated to the Virginia High School Hall of Fame, Fifteen winning seasons.
WASHINGTONWell, I won a couple of titles down in North Carolina.
PATTONThat's AA ball. This here is Virginia. We play AAA.
WASHINGTONWell, what an opportunity for me, then, to learn from the best.
NNAMDIThat's Denzel Washington playing Coach Herman Boone. Adam Bernstein, in what ways was Herman Boone considered a trailblazer?
BERNSTEINWell, there's a very inspiring story to tell with Herman Boone. And I just wanted to step back from sort of the mythology of Herman Boone. And take a look at the human -- just at the facts of his life. He amassed this terrific record in this small town in North Carolina, and was ultimately told by the town that he couldn't become the head coach down there, because they wouldn't accept a black head coach. So he comes up to Northern Virginia where he is the only black coach of a football team. And, you know, what's important to say is that he was a man put -- doing a very difficult job at a very difficult time. As you pointed out, the three schools had merged and he was initially the assistant coach at T.C. Williams under Bill Yoast who actually died earlier this year.
NNAMDIGoing to talk about him in a minute.
BERNSTEINAnd what Herman Boone said was he didn't know anything about Bill Yoast. He didn't know whether Bill Yoast was responsible for the fact that there were only whites playing on his team before whether he liked it that way. He needed to get to know him. And this is a central facet in Herman Boone's life, Getting to know other people.
NNAMDIWhat was the relationship like between Bill Yoast, who was a white man from Alabama and Herman Boone, who was African American?
BERNSTEINWell, Boone comes in with a reputation of being this disciplinarian and enforcer sort of a volcanic personality. Yoast was the guy who would corral all the team -- the players back to say, it's okay. He's -- he knows what he's doing. And they worked very well in partnership as you pointed out this remarkable undefeated state championship season in 1971. What's important for Boone, though, is to forge these relationships. He sort of broke people down and build them back up. And he said with Yoast he didn't know him at all until they became roommates and they just began talking. And the essential thing for him and Boone was to find the humanity behind -- among all the players.
BERNSTEINSo he forced them to get together, forced them to, you know, just introduce themselves. And there was this one bus ride on a trip where they initially -- all blacks on one bus, all whites on another. And Boone said, No. Forced them together and by the end of the bus ride everybody had nicknames. And this is sort of the breakthrough moment for the team. It's not enough to say that once everybody has nicknames everything was great. He was just a champion of learning to work as a team. And you couldn't succeed if you didn't do that.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact of Bill Yoast he said, "We were as different as night and day. But he and I found a way to talk to each other and trust each other. In the end, he was the best friend I ever had." And talking about bringing the team together, here is Herman Boone many years later talking about the significance of brining the team together that season.
HERMAN BOONEIn the face of great odds and great adversity and all of these nasty things that were happening to me, I think I did that. I created a system by which these young people began to celebrate their differences rather than allow their differences to become a problem to be solved on that football team.
BERNSTEINIf I can just add one thing about Mr. Boone, I thought the key to understanding who he was and what he thought about the film is a quote that he said just a few years ago. He says, "Little did I know that this wasn't a movie about a state championship. It was about how human beings can come together and the state championship was just the icing on the cake." I thought that was a lovely quote that really got to the heart of who he was. The championship didn't matter. It was just forging these relationships among the men on the field, and then what also was important is that all that community came together to support the team. So people who wouldn't have a chance to interact with one another were forced to support the team.
NNAMDIYou talked about that road trip they took to Gettysburg and how he forced the kids who were white to sit on a bus with the kids who were black and vice versa. He said when those kids came back from that camp they were together. The student body wasn't. The parents weren't. The community wasn't, but those kids were. The Titans were considered by some sports writers to be the best high school team in the country. Herman Boone said later that was just one piece of the team's success. That "sports serves more as," quoting here, "the vehicle that transports people and carries people who are willing whether they know it or not at the time to eat together. Talk together. Sit together. Live together."
NNAMDIHerman Boone born in 1935 in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina died December 18th at his home in Alexandria, Virginia. He is survived by two daughters, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Adam, Cokie Roberts was one of NPR's most recognizable voices and indeed one of the pioneering women of public radio. How did Cokie's upbringing influence her knowledge of Washington politics?
BERNSTEINYou could easy say she was a consummate insider in D.C. I mean, both her parents served in Congress, Thomas Boggs, Lindi Boggs. And she was also the sister of Tommy -- the father is Thomas Hale Boggs. The brother went by Tommy. And for decades he was the epitome of the power broker lobbyist here in D.C. So she really was at the center of the premier institutions in the city. Really considered herself an institutionalist above all. And was just a determined political reporter at a time when that was -- it wasn't an avenue open to a lot of women. This is starting in the 60s and then really made her name starting in the 70s at NPR, at PBS and then ABC news. And, you know, also not just as a reporter, but also political commentator.
NNAMDIWhy was she considered such a pioneer?
BERNSTEINIt was not very common for women at that time to have such a visible role reporting hard news, and she made her name covering politics.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Steve Roberts. He is a Journalist and the Husband of Cokie Roberts. Hi, Steve, thank you for joining us.
STEVE ROBERTSIt's a pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDISteve, my deepest condolences to you and your family. You and Cokie were both journalists. How and when did you first meet?
ROBERTSWe met actually at a student political meeting in the summer of 1962 at Ohio State University. She was 18. I was 19. And we joyfully discovered that our dorms back in Boston were only 12 miles apart. And so we went back to school that fall and we had a few dates. And, of course, I was a typical guy petrified of commitment. And so I stopped calling. And I hadn't seen her for several months and then we both were supposed to come to Washington for another political meeting that her late sister, Barbara Sigmund, who also was very much in politics and the Mayor of Princeton, New Jersey for many years. And Barbara was running this meeting here in Washington.
ROBERTSAnd I was supposed to come and stay at this home on Bradley Boulevard where I'm sitting right now. And where Cokie and I have lived for 42 years. This was her family home. Her parents had bought this house in 1952. Anyway we came to Washington and all the other guys, who were supposed to stay for the weekend at this meeting didn't show up leaving me as the only house guest, Kojo. And, you know, in addition to yes we shared our political interest, but we were an interfaith couple.
ROBERTSCokie was a very devout Catholic. I'm a very loyal Jew. And we thought for a long time that these would be enormous obstacles. But that night in the spring of 1963 right here on Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda we stayed up all night talking and realized that there was a glimpse of a path ahead of us, Kojo. That what we shared was a lot more important than the religious differences. And we really were together from that weekend. And that was the spring of 1963, and it was a long time ago.
NNAMDIAnd what a path you carved out together. Cokie Roberts once said, "It's a woman's talent being able to do two things at once." Let's listen to her talking about balancing work and family in an interview she did with our own Diane Rehm.
COKIE ROBERTSIt's not complicated. You know, clichés are clichés for a reason. They're true and nobody has ever said on their deathbed, I'm really sorry about that career thing I miss doing or that meeting I missed or that story I didn't write. And I'm very clear on what the priorities are here. That doesn't mean that I haven't worked very hard all my life, but these -- the relationship with Steve and my children and my mother and my siblings and my friends clearly comes first.
NNAMDISteve Roberts, it was clear that Cokie considered family and friends first. What do you see as her most important legacy?
ROBERTSWell, as Adam said, of course, one level her pioneering work as a woman in journalism is certainly part of her legacy. You also have to mention the books that she wrote. As a historian she rescued and enshrined the stories of women in American history. She wrote four national best-sellers all of which were terribly important mission in highlighting the often forgotten role that women have played in American history. But frankly, Kojo, I think in the end the most lasting legacy was her personal grace and her generosity of spirit.
ROBERTSAt her funeral a told the story in my eulogy about really the last day when she was still conscious, and she had been bugging her nurse who was pregnant and said, "I want to see the pictures of your children." She had two small children at home. And this woman kept saying, "Cokie, I'm too busy." And Cokie was just absolutely insistent and said, "I want to see those pictures of those children." And the woman finally brought her phone over and really it was the last time I saw Cokie's face light up with that incandescent smile, Kojo.
ROBERTSThese kids had been at a wedding and the little boy was wearing a bowtie. The little girl had her hair in ribbons. And Cokie said to this nurse who she barely knew, "What beautiful children," and they fell into this embrace. And this is virtually the last time I ever saw Cokie conscious and that's my most enduring memory, Kojo. That's the Cokie that in some ways was the most important legacy she left behind was that that personal concern for other people.
NNAMDIAnd what a beautiful memory it is. Cokie Roberts lost her battle with breast cancer on September 17th. She was 75 years old. Steve, thank you so much for joining us.
ROBERTSAlways a pleasure, Kojo. Happy Holidays to you.
NNAMDIHappy Holidays to you too. Steve Roberts is a Journalist and the Husband of Cokie Roberts. Here now is Paula in Pasadena, California. Paula, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULAHi. Yes, my name is actually Paula Hines. My father is the black assistant coach in the movie, Paul 'Doc' Hines.
PAULAAnd Herman Boone and my dad used to go to coach's clinic in the 60s long before the Titans. So it's like Herman Boone and his family were part of my life forever. I'm so glad I got to see him in August before he passed.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us, Paula. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll talk about some more of the people who died in 2019 including late Congressman Elijah Cummings. But we're still taking your calls 800-433-8850. Did you lose a loved one this year? What did you learn from their life and how do you hope to honor their memory? Which Washingtonians are you reflecting on this holiday season? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about people, who died in 2019, people who have a relationship to Washington D.C. My guest is Adam Bernstein. He is the Obituary Editor for The Washington Post. Adam Representative Elijah Cummings came of age in the 1950s and 1960s in Baltimore. How did those early years influence the kind of lawyer and the kind of politician he would eventually become?
BERNSTEINWell, I remember there are two elements that I recall from our obituary about Congressman Cummings. One is that when he was very young he tried to integrate a pool in his hometown of Baltimore. And he also was a huge fan of -- what's -- the TV show, Perry Mason.
BERNSTEINAnd so he saw Perry Mason championing -- he had this quote where he said, "You know, I know a lot of kids of my age who are, you know, going to jail and they're always going to need a lawyer. I'm going to be the Perry Mason of Baltimore." And that sort of got him thinking about his future. Got him to law school and then eventually, obviously, into politics. I see Elijah Cummings as the leading moral voice -- excuse me -- the leading voice of moral outrage on Capitol Hill, especially in the last couple of years. This is when he really came to prominence, first with the Benghazi hearings, and then just outraged by the cruelty as he saw it by the Trump administration against people who were powerless. He sort of stood as a bulwark against powerful people doing cruel things to powerless people. And this really comes across in his role as Chairman of the Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill.
NNAMDIIn what ways did Baltimore's plight inform Elijah Cummings's life and work on Capitol Hill? I'm thinking in particular about his response to the death of 25 year old Freddie Grey who suffered fatal injuries while riding improperly secured in the back of a Baltimore Police van.
BERNSTEINHe was the voice. He was the booming -- I don't know how to say it better than this. He was the booming voice of calm and reason. You know, he was the son of Baptist preachers. He could really dazzle a crowd with his eloquence, but he knew enough to calm crowds at moments of outrage. And he really came into his own during the funeral for Freddie Grey in Baltimore. And he had this eloquent cadence as he said, "Our children are the living messages we send to the future we will never see. But now our children our sending us to a future they will never see. And there's something wrong with that picture." So he really positioned himself as a moral -- as a voice of calm and moral authority at a time when the city was in riots.
NNAMDIHerbert C. Smith, a Political Science Professor at McDaniel College called Elijah Cummings, quoting here, "The quintessential speaking truth to power representative." Here's the congressman addressing Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan during a July hearing on the treatment of migrant children at the U.S. border.
ELIJAH CUMMINGSWhen we hear about stories coming out from you and your agency that everything is pretty good and you're doing a great job. I guess you feel like you're doing a great job, right? Is that what you're saying?
KEVIN MCALEENANWe're doing our level best in a very challenging ...
CUMMINGSWhat does that mean? What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces? Can't take a shower. Come on, man. What's that about? None of us would have our children in that position. They are human beings. We are the United States of America. We are the greatest country in the world. We are the ones that can go anywhere in the world and save people. Make sure that they have diapers. Make sure that they have toothbrushes. Make sure that they're not laying around defecating in some silver paper. Come on, we're better than that.
NNAMDIAs we heard in that clip, Elijah Cummings was a forceful opponent of the Trump administration's family separation policy. Something he equated to child internment camps. Adam, how did President Donald Trump respond to that kind of criticism?
BERNSTEINNot well as you can imagine. But, you know, he symbolized -- at the moment when Trump would then go low and attack Baltimore as this rat infested hellhole and say all kinds of terrible things about the congressman's district what's important to -- is how one responds to that. And he symbolized dignity, restraint, decorum, however you want to say it in a profession that increasingly has that in short supply. And I remember there was a comment that he gave telling an audience shortly after Trump went low and saying that "Those at the highest levels of government must stop invoking fear using racist language and encouraging reprehensible behavior. And as a country we must finally say that enough is enough. That we are done with the hateful rhetoric." That really tells you everything you need to know about Elijah Cummings in my book.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone now is Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, Former Chair of the Maryland Democratic Party and the Wife of Elijah Cummings. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, thank you for joining us.
CUMMINGSThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd our condolences for your loss. Your husband, Elijah, while he had a combative streak also had a knack for calming tense situations. Can you give us an example of that?
CUMMINGSSo, you know, Elijah was a very even keel person. I mean, he really was, you know, he didn't have a lot of highs. He didn't have a lot of lows. And his forte was bringing people together. But when you saw him get upset, it was always in an instance where an injustice was occurring. He really -- the fierceness of him came out whenever he felt like someone was getting a raw deal. He comes from a background where, you know, he literally grew up as an underdog per say. An African American in a segregated southern state having to be assigned to certain schools and to, you know, not be able to walk in certain areas or even use a pool. And so the whole notion of injustice was personal for him.
CUMMINGSHe even was assigned to special education as a child. And so he really had empathy for those who were the underdogs and who had been mistreated. And so, you know, throughout his career he had served as a voice of reason primarily, but whenever you heard the outrage it was when someone was being done an injustice, where social injustices were occurring.
NNAMDIHere is Elijah giving the closing remarks at the House Oversights Committee's questioning of President Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
CUMMINGSI want to first of all thank you. I know that this has been hard. I know that you face a lot. I know that you are worried about your family, but this is a part of your destiny. And hopefully this portion of your destiny will lead to a better, a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better United States of America and a better world. And I mean that from the depths of my heart. When we're dancing with the angels, the question will be asked, in 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?
NNAMDIMaya Rockeymoore Cummings, even as Elijah Cummings dances with the angels it would appear that this was something he had in mind before. This notion of what does one expect one's legacy to be. What do you see as his most enduring legacy?
CUMMINGSI do think it's a defender of democracy, someone who is a champion for preserving and protecting our democracy for our children and their children's children. I mean, he -- and the importance of diversity in democracy was absolutely something that was a part of his legacy. He really believed and he often said that our diversity is our promise and not our problem. And so, you know, he really wishes and wished that, you know, that we had certainly a country that was worthy of our children. And he fought to his very last breathe to make sure that that was the case.
NNAMDIElijah Cummings, Civil Rights leader and Democratic Congressman from Maryland passed away on October 17th at a hospice center in Baltimore. He was 68. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, thank you so much for joining us.
CUMMINGSThanks for having me.
NNAMDIMaya Rockeymoore Cummings is the Former Chair of the Maryland Democratic Party and the Wife of Elijah Cummings. Here is Darrel in Alexandria, Virginia. Darrel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DARRELHi, Kojo. How are you?
DARRELLong time listener, I got to tell you, Coach Boone was an amazing man. He taught me football. He taught me driver's ed, and I miss him. And this man was not like anybody else, like he literally said that Denzel needed to be sexier in that movie, because he just wasn't as sexy as he was. And I'm telling you, the man even after he retired he came to T.C. Williams and he ran track every day. And when cancer got him and it's just not right.
NNAMDIAnd I hope that you're a good driver.
DARRELOh, I'm good driver.
NNAMDISince he taught you driver's ed.
DARRELI'll tell you. That man, he is part of this town and he's a great guy.
NNAMDIThank you, Darrel. I can see you cared a great deal for Coach Boone and I'm sure a lot of the people with whom he was associated, who played for him or who he taught feel much the same way. Thank you so much for your call. You too can give us a call, 800-433-8850. Which Washingtonians are you reflecting on this holiday season? 800-433-8850. Adam, Toni Morrison was born Chloe Wofford in Ohio steel country. It wasn't until she came to Howard University in Washington that she started going by the nickname Toni. How did Toni Morrison's time in Howard influence her career?
BERNSTEINWell, she studied the Humanities at Howard. She came in as a star student of her high school. I think she was -- I don't know if there's anything in particular about her time at Howard that forged her as the Toni Morrison that much of the world knows now. I'll tell you in this sense she got her graduate degree and then got married to a Jamaican man. And she said that she couldn't stand being in her words kind of being oppressed by him, and she found liberation in writing soon after they got married. So this wasn't necessarily at Howard, but it was not long thereafter that she really began writing short stories on the side. And then, obviously, went on to a very distinguished career as a book editor initially before she came into her own as a novelist.
BERNSTEINAnd I think -- this is conjecture, but obviously, she studied the Humanities at Howard. I think what her chief legacy is as a writer is taking the grandeur of myth and trying to apply it to the reality that she saw around her both in her native Ohio, perhaps here in Washington, the reality of life as an African American at that time of defector and segregation.
NNAMDIToni Morrison placed black characters, particularly black women at the center of her stories. Why was this so revolutionary at the time?
BERNSTEINWell, women were largely relegated to the margins both of literature and life very much so at that time that she began writing. So it was highly unusual. She wrote about dignity and nobility in a world that she saw filled with oppression everywhere. And of people who rejected pity even at great personal cost. I mean, I think you see that as a theme throughout all of her books.
NNAMDIFrom "The Bluest Eye" on. Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize in 1993. The citation recognized her for novels that breathed life into an essential aspect of the American reality. Here she is accepting the prize.
TONI MORRISONFiction has never been entertainment for me. It has been the work I have done for most of my adult life. I believe that one of the principal ways in which we acquire, hold and digest information is via narrative. So I hope you will understand when the remarks I make begin with what I believe to be the first sentence of our childhood that we all remember the phrase, "Once upon a time."
NNAMDILater President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom as one of our nation's most distinguished storytellers. Toni Morrison died August 5th at a hospital in the Bronx. She was 88. We're going to end with one last clip of her Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Toni Morrison's ode to language.
MORRISONLanguage can never pin down slavery, genocide, war, nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable. Be it grand or slender, borrowing, blasting or refusing to sanctify, whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge not its destruction.
NNAMDIAnd for people like Adam Bernstein and yours truly who make a living with words those words are really very important.
BERNSTEINShe took control of language. I think this is an essential element of her life's legacy. She took control of language. She took control of narrative, which was a word she just mentioned a few seconds ago. She took control of the narrative to reclaim power on behalf of many people who did not have it. I mean, I have like 50 quotes here of Toni Morrison talking about the power of narrative. And if I may just use two of them, that, you know, "We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives."
BERNSTEINShe didn't mind being characterized either as an African American female writer. You know, a lot of other people might say, No, no. I'm a writer and you're trying to pigeonhole me. She didn't mind the label. And she said that she, "Could accept the labels because being a black woman writer is not a shallow place, but a rich place to write from. It doesn't limit my imagination. It expands it. It's richer than being a white male writer, because I know more and I've experienced more."
NNAMDIToni Morrison. We said good-bye to many notable Washingtonians this year. And unfortunately we could not fit them all into our show today. Here are just a few: Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch, Founding Director of the Congressional Budget Office Alice Rivlin, Architect of the Museum of African American History and Culture Phil Freelon, Physician Activist Janet Sherman, Civil Rights Leader and Pioneer in D.C. Politician Sterling Tucker, And Mark Plotkin, a Radio Commentator, passionate champion of D.C. Statehood and one of my dearest friends, the one who talked me into doing this job.
NNAMDIYou can find remembrances of other Washingtonians we lost this year who left behind a legacy of change and empowerment at wamu.org. Who are you remembering as 2019 comes to an end? Tweet us @kojoshow and we'll share that today. Adam Bernstein, thank you so much for joining us.
BERNSTEINA total pleasure. Happy Holidays.
NNAMDIWe'll be right back.
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