From her perch in the heavens, C. DeLores Tucker must be chuckling at the irony, marveling that all it took was an old white man with a foul mouth to spark a national conversation about rap lyrics.

It was a conversation that Tucker - a native Philadelphian and pioneering civil rights activist - sought over the last decade of her life.

Until her death at 78 in 2005, Tucker fought futilely against the profane and sexist lyrics in rap music - the same lyrics disgraced radio host Don Imus justified by calling the young and achieving Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos."

Let's be clear: Rap music didn't get Imus in trouble. Imus got Imus in trouble. When it comes to women, the road to denigration has historically been littered with filth and degradation.

Beginning with the founding fathers.

In her book Pimps Up, Ho's Down: Hip Hop's Hold on Young Black Women, Vanderbilt professor T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting points out that Thomas Jefferson, our third president and chief architect of the Declaration of Independence, described black women as "woolly-headed wenches" with libidos so out of control that they should mate with orangutans.

Maybe that's what inspired an Imus sidekick to once compare tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams to animals who best belonged on the pages of National Geographic rather than in Playboy magazine.

Meanwhile, the street and strip culture of commercial hip-hop has put a choke-hold on our collective psyche, just as C. DeLores Tucker foresaw so many years ago.

Understanding that generating more money depends on stirring up more incivility, rappers make music with lyrics that demean and objectify their own (while white record-company execs get richer and richer), accompanied by a ubiquitous bonus, the rap video. Which, of course, the ever-cooperative BET (Black Exploitation, I mean, Entertainment Television) airs in nonstop rotation, as radio hypes the raunch by imploring us "to keep it locked" 24/7.

It's a conveniently complicit enterprise that robs black women of their dignity and kicks them to the curb.

"Black-on-black gender drive-by," Sharpley-Whiting says with a sigh.

It's not as if African Americans had been silent on the sidelines. Rap has taken unsparing criticism from influential celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby, activist Al Sharpton, the editors of Essence magazine, and the women of Spelman College, who rose in organized protest - to little media fanfare - over Nelly's repulsive Tip Drill video.

But Tucker, who seized the mantle of "gangsta rap" in the early 1990s, saw the decay coming before anyone else.

"She was moved to speak out against the offensive nature of it," Philadelphia NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire told me. "She took it as a personal affront."

Long before MCs tossed around bitch and ho as demeaning substitutes for birth names, long before blunt-smoking pitchmen like Snoop Dogg shilled fabric softener or Daimler Chryslers, or Lil' Kim promoted the pole-sliding mystique, Tucker took a stand against misogyny and rallied for decency.

"The whole gangster-rap industry is drug-driven, race-driven and greed-driven," she once remarked.

Tucker brilliantly even bought stock in Time Warner in 1995 just so she could crash its stockholders' meeting and read aloud the offensive lyrics of the rappers in the Time Warner stable.

In Philadelphia, she organized a small group of black clergy to march on Tower Records to protest gangster rap, and was the driving force behind Allen Iverson's decision to scrap the release of a rap CD, featuring lyrics that glorified violence and offended gays.

Yet she was routinely dismissed as being a turban-wearing, out-of-touch dinosaur. Didn't matter that she marched with Martin Luther King for the civil rights that rappers enjoy today. That didn't stop Tupac Shakur from slurring Tucker by rhyming her surname with an obscenity on his 1996 CD, All Eyez on Me. Or Eminem for his vile response to her efforts.

But as Imus' trash talk has pushed open the floodgates, I hope this is the start of a reckoning. That BET will demand clean videos and refuse to run those that disparage. That civil rights organizations like the NAACP won't even consider nominating the lascivious R. Kelly for an Image Award. That rappers will stop debasing their mothers, sisters, daughters - the very women who love them. And that young black men will stop playing out the violence so celebrated by the pop-culture thugs they idolize.

C. DeLores Tucker tried to pass us the baton before. Let's not drop it this time.

Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews. com. To read her recent work, go to http://go.philly.com/annette.