Don Cornelius never led a civil rights march, launched a boycott or gave a speech before a cheering crowd of protesters.
But his impact on America was as profound as virtually any civil rights leader, says Shayne Lee, a sociologist who grew up watching “Soul Train.”
Cornelius’ groundbreaking TV show didn’t just captivate African-Americans — it tied white and black America together in a way that had not been done before, says Lee, who teaches a course on hip-hop at the University of Houston.
“He was an ambassador, the pope of soul,” Lee said. “For a lot of suburban whites living in segregated America, this was their first exposure to this exciting new world of movement and energy. He made black culture more accessible.”
Cornelius, who hosted “Soul Train” for 22 of its 36 years on the air, died Tuesday. He was 75. Police reports indicate he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The suave Cornelius was known by an entire generation of African-Americans as the dapper host of “Soul Train” who signed off each show by blowing a kiss and declaring, “We wish you love, peace and souuuullll.”
Most of the tributes to Cornelius that poured in following his death focused on his contribution to music. Others said his legacy was bigger than sound.
Cultural impact of ‘Soul Train’
Kenny Gamble, co-founder of Philadelphia International Records, which produced the theme song for “Soul Train,” says Cornelius was a great contributor to American, not just black, culture.
“Soul Train,” like Apple and Coca-Cola, is an American brand, Gamble says.
“Soul Train” traditions, like dancers gathering to cheer on fellow dancers as they shimmied down a dance line, are now a part of pop culture.
“No matter where you go in this world, people are doing the ‘Soul Train’ dance line,” he said. “What’s a party without the ‘Soul Train’ dance line?”
Gamble still sounded stunned after hearing the news about Cornelius.
“Unbelievable,” he said. “That was my man.”
Singer Gladys Knight told CNN that Cornelius was an unsung hero whose show amplified the message, “I’m black and I’m proud.”
“He encouraged us to be ourselves,” she said. “We’re going to give you this platform and you go out and do your thing.”