Retired minister fights for civil rights vision Heritage of Honor -- A celebration of Black History Month

February 16, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

At 78, the Rev. Leon White still has the fire in his soul.

After a lifetime of working for change, the county activist and minister says this: "Dreams like Martin Luther King's are always slow-moving. The wheels of justice grind slowly. But justice will roll down like many waters, faster and faster."

Officially retired, Mr. White is still fighting the good fight for God and civil rights, and recently received a Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major Award from the Keep the Dream Alive Committee, a coalition of black civic leaders.

Respect for education and religion came early. College students needing shelter frequently turned up at his childhood home near Morris College in South Carolina, and his father, a Baptist minister, always took them in. As for church, "you were sick or you were in church. If you were too sick for church, you were too sick to play," he recalls.

At 14, Mr. White was chosen as superintendent of the local Sunday school. A few decades later, he was himself a Methodist minister, spearheading a fight in Anne Arundel County to support black public schools, and later, to integrate the county school system.

When Mr. White and his wife, Evelyn, moved to Anne Arundel in 1950, they were astonished to find the black community had to pay the light bills, make the desks and buy supplies for the public schools their children attended. "I couldn't understand why we were being taxed and receiving little, and I was angry," says Mr. White.

His prodding led to black schools getting the supplies they needed. Later, his task was pushing for integration in county schools and making sure transportation was provided for black children.

His life's mission, he says, is to "see people of my race achieve those goals that would enrich their lives to become an asset and a not a liability to the nation, to get young blacks to see the value of a good education."

In that respect, Mr. White is leading by example. He earned double bachelor degrees in science and theology at Morris College. Called into the military, he served three years overseas, earning five battle stars.

Mr. White married during the war. Later, the couple moved to Maryland and bought a home in Pasadena, where they have lived ever since.

While he continued his education at the University of Maryland and Wesley Theological Seminary, Mr. White went to work for the government at Fort Meade, where he became the first African-American director and later administrator of purchasing and procurement.

He became a United Methodist minister. He sought to advance black opportunities and education through a number of roles, as president of the then-existing black equivalent of the county's PTA, as a leader of the United Black Clergy and as a county president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Nancy Gist, a former school board president, remembers Mr. White as her pastor at Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Queenstown. "He was very concerned about the black presence in business," she says. "He would go to local banks to impress them with the importance of hiring blacks, and he was successful. He gets out into the community to right the wrongs or oversights. He moves the machinery."

Vincent Leggett, county school board president, says Mr. White did the pioneer work here for equal opportunity in education for blacks. He also laid the groundwork for black leaders, who "stand on the shoulders of the Leon Whites who made it possible," Mr. Leggett says.

All through his activism, Mr. White has remained a gentle humanitarian who friends say has been known to pay out of his own pocket the college bills of financially needy young people, black or white.

He won't tell you that himself. He says of his life: "I've tried. I don't know how much I've accomplished."

But those such as Ms. Gist say Mr. White has "absolutely nothing to be modest about."

Yevola Peters, a former executive director of the Community Action Committee, praises Mr. White's commitment. "Regardless of what is happening in the community, any time you call upon him to participate or be involved, he is there," she says.

Mr. White retired from full-time ministry in 1984, leaving his most recent pastorate at Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church. His wife retired in 1984 from full-time work as a public school teacher. But neither has stopped working: Mr. White fills in as pastor for other churches, and his wife volunteers as a tutor.

"Both of us have had the chance to see our people reach the level where they can stand on their own feet and not have somebody taking care of them," says Mr. White. His own children have distinguished themselves, his son with a law career after attending Harvard Law School; his daughter as a college professor who has received national recognition for programs she began at Bowie State.

Mr. White gives God the credit. "He's the source of all power and energy," he says.

"The thing needed today is that persons of all races, and particularly of the Christian faith, would actually live out their beliefs. People don't feel they need God. But belief in God makes all the difference to realizing Dr. King's dream."

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