Feisty civil rights leader aims 'to upset everybody'

January 16, 1994|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

As a high school football player in the late 1940s, John Louis Wright idolized Marion Motley, the Cleveland Browns running back later inducted into the Football Hall of Fame.

"He'd carry three or four [tacklers] on his back [still] running," said the Rev. Wright, now a 57-year-old Howard County minister and civil rights leader. "I'm not exaggerating!"

Forty years later, Mr. Wright is still on the offense, capping seven years as president of the Maryland NAACP by launching a group seeking more political clout for Howard County's black population.

That group -- Alliance of Citizens for Responsive Leadership -- already has ruffled feathers among local politicians with its vow to unseat state Sen. Thomas M. Yeager of District 13 and Del. Virginia M. Thomas of District 13A.

"I'm hoping to upset everybody and vote some out if I can," said Mr. Wright, who stepped down Jan. 1 from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People position after deciding not to seek another term.

Yet his aggressive approach has won him the respect and

admiration of some local leaders.

"I think he's brought issues to the forefront that needed to be brought, that people in leadership needed to hear," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker. "He'll give you an opportunity to work and solve the problem."

Reputation as fighter

Since 1982, when he became head of the Howard County NAACP, and as president of the 24-branch state group from 1986 on, Mr. Wright has gained a reputation as a fighter.

"I never thought I'd be where I am today," he said recently, sitting in his office at the First Baptist Church of Guilford on Oakland Mills Road.

Arrayed around him was a collection of awards, books and pictures. On the lot outside sat his black luxury automobile.

But on the shelf behind his desk is a grim reminder of the forces he has faced: a sign that reads "No place for a nigger," the message left on his windshield during a convention in Hagerstown in 1986.

"The NAACP is needed as much today as it was needed in 1910," said Mr. Wright. "Racism is very much alive. It doesn't change that much. . . . It's a new mask, but the same hidden agenda beneath the mask."

Mr. Wright, the oldest of four boys and five girls, grew up on North Calhoun Street in West Baltimore in the days of segregation.

His mother, a homemaker, and father, a Sparrows Point laborer, were poor but provided for their children, and taught them to respect others, particularly adults.

As a boy, he worked at a neighborhood grocery store. And as the oldest child, he helped watch over his younger siblings.

"When we had a problem, we always went to Johnnie," said William Jackson Wright, one of his brothers.

Leadership in Scouts

In 1948, at age 12, John Wright joined Boy Scout Troop 279 in his neighborhood, an all-black troop sponsored by Enon Baptist Church.

As a Scout, he learned self-esteem, pride and honor under the guidance of Scoutmaster Jackson Scott Sr., who took the boys camping and taught them cooking, swimming and other skills.

"We learned how to take care of ourselves in adverse conditions," Mr. Wright said. "I was one of the best."

Many times, members of his troop were the only blacks at Boy Scout jamborees, he said, but they were prepared.

"We were taught we had to be better than our white peers," he said.

Noticing his leadership skills, Mr. Scott made the boy a den chief and an acting Scoutmaster. The two developed a lasting bond when Mr. Scott frequently picked up the boy from the hospital, where he visited his asthmatic mother.

"I liked John very much," said Mr. Scott, now 89 years old. "He was interested in everything and always asked questions about different things."

Mr. Wright, who remains active with the Scouts, credits his former Scoutmaster with being a strong role model and going out of his way for the youngsters, sometimes reaching into his own pocket to buy shoes for his needy Scouts.

"This is what's missing now," Mr. Wright said.

He graduated from Carver Vocational-Technical High School in 1956, served a stint in the Army and then worked for two small home contractors in Baltimore. In 1966, he took a maintenance job with the city.

That year, he met his wife of 27 years, the former Ida Mitchell. They have a daughter, Sheila.

Call to ministry

And that same year, he said, he answered God's call to the ministry, something he still finds "hard to explain. . . . It was an inner force that pulls."

He studied theology at Maryland Baptist School in Baltimore from 1969 to 1972. He was ordained a minister in 1972, becoming part-time pastor at the First Baptist Church of Guilford on Oakland Mills Road, which had 120 members at that time. The 90-year-old church now has 2,000 members, the largest black church in the county. He became full-time pastor in 1981.

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