Leland Higginbotham, 84, pastor and activist

January 24, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Leland Higginbotham, a former pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Towson who was a powerful voice in the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s, died Monday of leukemia at his Annapolis home. He was 84.

"He was a man who brought an incredible intensity, vigor and intelligence to whatever he did," said the Rev. John E. Roberts, a friend of more than 40 years, who retired as pastor of Woodbrook Baptist Church in North Baltimore.

"Higgie had an incredibly strong sense of justice and was very outspoken on the Vietnam War and civil rights," said the Rev. Frederick K. Weimert, who became pastor of Calvary after Mr. Higginbotham's retirement in 1981. Mr. Higginbotham joined with the Berrigan brothers and Rabbi Jacob B. Agus of Beth El Congregation in those movements.

Mr. Higginbotham was born in Baton Rouge, La., and raised in Washington, where he graduated from high school in 1937. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Richmond in 1942, and a master's in divinity from Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y., in 1945. He studied clinical pastoral care at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington and did post-graduate work at Case Western Reserve University.

While an undergraduate at the University of Richmond, he fell in love with a classmate, the former Ethne Crowder Flanagan, whom he married in 1943.

Mr. Higginbotham was an inventor during his college days. He perfected an incubator -- used by the Medical College of Virginia and several other medical schools -- that automatically fed and watered premature baby chicks. He later sold his Virginia Incubator to pay his divinity school tuition.

He began his pastoral career in 1945 as assistant pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio. In 1952, he was named pastor of the First Baptist Church in Hightstown, N.J. He remained there until 1955, when he went to Calvary Baptist Church in Towson, which was heavily in debt.

Mr. Higginbotham said in his unpublished autobiographical notes that his "greatest joy and achievement" was making the church debt-free and expanding its congregation to more than 500 members. He also built a Sunday school building, and established inner-city missions and tutorial programs.

"When I came there were more members in the choir than the congregation," he wrote.

Mr. Higginbotham's social activism began when he led an effort that defeated a Baltimore County referendum that called for students attending private schools to be transported by bus at taxpayers' expense.

He also persuaded Baltimore's Baptist ministers to adopt a statement rejecting an interpretation of the Bible that justified racial prejudice.

But it was the Vietnam War that galvanized Mr. Higginbotham, who held public meetings on the war in his church on Sunday evenings.

He was a member of the Baltimore Committee of Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. He served as president of the Baltimore Pastors Conference and the Clergy Brotherhood -- made up of Protestants, Roman Catholics and Jews -- as well as chairman of the special committee on legislation for the Maryland Council of Churches.

In 1966, Mr. Higginbotham was joined by the Rev. Philip F. Berrigan, Robert Z. Alpern, and other members of the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission for a two-hour interview with then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk on the Vietnam War.

Unimpressed with the secretary's comments and views on the war, Mr. Higginbotham wrote, "Mr. Rusk is a hawk in the truest sense of the word."

"He was a very affirming sort of person," Mr. Roberts said.

A longtime member of Mr. Higginbotham's congregation was Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as Divine, the transvestite film star, whom he had known since he was a youngster.

At his funeral in 1988, Mr. Higginbotham said, "Glenn was born before civil rights, or women's rights. ... God doesn't want people created out of a Xerox machine. ... The tragedy is that Glenn was cut off right at the point of becoming who he really was, and the world will never see how that flower could have unfolded."

"When a conservative West Coast radio commentator called and asked how he could take part in Divine's funeral, Higgie said, `How could I not do this? I baptized that young man,'" Mr. Weimert said. "One thing about him, he was never afraid or intimidated by people."

Mr. Higginbotham enjoyed sailing aboard his 32-foot sailboat, the Trilogy, gardening, reading and looking at the stars through his telescope.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 31 at Calvary Baptist Church, 120 W. Pennsylvania Ave. in Towson.

Besides his wife, Mr. Higginbotham is survived by a son, Robert L. Higginbotham of Annapolis; a daughter, Ethne Lee Turowski of Annapolis; and three grandchildren.

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