There were plenty of words used to describe John Tucker, the outgoing director of the Racial Justice and Equity Project at Burlington's Peace and Justice Center -- "diplomatic" was not one of them. But as Tucker's friends and colleagues paid tribute to him last week and thanked him for more than 10 years of fighting racism in Vermont, one thing was clear: They wouldn't have wanted Tucker any other way.
"John doesn't bite his tongue or sugar-coat issues," said one resident of the Old North End. "He has the guts to say what other people are thinking but are afraid to say," offered another. Still another suggested, "He is unfairly judged because he delivers a controversial message."
When Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle listed some of Tucker's accomplishments over the last decade, such as challenging racial profiling by the Burlington Police Department and fighting institutional racism in public housing and government employment, he spoke affectionately but bluntly about Tucker's confrontational style. "John," he said, "thank you for being such a pain in the ass all these years."
If Tucker wasn't polite about confronting racial injustice, his friends and allies said it didn't diminish his effectiveness. Former Vermont Governor Phil Hoff, who served with Tucker on the Vermont Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, noted that Tucker was instrumental in exposing harassment of students of color in Vermont's public schools, a problem that was far more pervasive than anyone had realized. Tucker also helped increase recruitment of both students and faculty of color at the University of Vermont. Finally, Hoff described Tucker's work on the state Advisory Committee as "herculean."
Clearly, Tucker was moved by all the adulation. During the reading of a letter from his friend and colleague Dr. Richard Wright, co-founder of the Racial Justice and Equity Project, in which he described Tucker as "the brightest, baddest and most unapologetic African-American man I know," Tucker broke down and wept. But when it was his turn to speak, Tucker was unrelenting in how much work remains to be done. For instance, he talked about how his children and grandchildren have all had to leave Vermont in order to find work. "There's just no place for them here," he said. "It's sad. Other communities are benefiting from their youth and courage."
Tucker left the Peace and Justice Center on October 1 to launch a Vermont chapter of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the national civil-rights organization that was founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But Tucker says his style won't change in the new position. "I can't be any other way than I am," he said. "Don't ask if you don't want to know what I think."