A Bear of a Man

February 04, 1993

You couldn't ignore the Rev. Wendell H. Phillips. Not only did he possess an imposing physical presence and a stentorian voice, but he was so outspoken and committed to righting the wrongs of society that he was usually the center of attention -- be it in the pulpit or in the political arena. His death at age 58 last Friday deprives the Baltimore region of one of its most tenacious fighters for social justice and equality.

Religion played a major role in the life of this son of a Baptist preacher (three of his brothers were preachers and his sister married a minister). He arrived in Baltimore in 1964 and turned a tiny congregationalist church into a major force for change in Northwest Baltimore. Under Mr. Phillips' leadership, Heritage United Church of Christ grew by leaps and bounds, extending its activities deep into the community fabric. He ministered to the poor, to drug addicts, to delinquent juveniles, to alcoholics, to street people. He was a co-founder of Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD) and one of the first ministers to recognize the threat of AIDS to the black community.

Mr. Phillips was also deeply involved in the civil rights movement. While serving as president of the Rochester, N.Y., chapter of the NAACP, he joined with Malcolm X to fight police brutality. NAACP national leaders objected, but Mr. Phillips would not be swayed.

In Baltimore, as head of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, he infuriated then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer by charging city agencies with race and sex discrimination. A bitter feud ensued. Only after Mr. Phillips won a second term in the House of Delegates and was elected chairman of the city delegation did Mr. Schaefer bury the hatchet. They became close allies.

It was easy to like Wendell Phillips. His hearty laugh, the twinkle in his eyes, the sincerity of his pleas for social equity served as a clarion call for his fellow legislators in Annapolis and for his congregants and neighbors in Northwest Baltimore. He was a bear of a man, who wore his political and religious titles with dignity and grace. Wendell Phillips will be missed. Baltimore is a better community for his having been among us.

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