John L. Wright

The longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Guilford was a civil rights activist and president of the state NAACP

February 03, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

John Louis Wright, longtime pastor of the First Baptist Church of Guilford in Howard County who was an outspoken civil rights activist and former president of the state NAACP, died Thursday of complications from melanoma at St. Agnes Hospital.

The Ten Hills resident, who earlier had lived in Randallstown, was 73.

"I will fight against the double standard in this country and in this state, where there is still bigotry, racism and Jim Crowism. It still exists," Dr. Wright said when he was elected president in 1986 of the Maryland Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"I'm not going to sugarcoat this thing - I'm going to tell it like it is. And I will fight, go to jail, sit in and picket - whatever it takes - to change it," said Dr. Wright, who served as president until 1994.

Dr. Wright's lifelong passion for civil rights and human decency were shaped by the events of his childhood and youth in Baltimore of the 1930s and 1940s.

The son of a Bethlehem Steel Corp. worker and a homemaker, he was born in Baltimore and grew up in the 600 block of N. Calhoun St. After graduating from Carver Vocational-Technical High School, he served in the Army.

In a 1986 profile in The Baltimore Sun, Dr. Wright recalled the sting and indignity of racism that African-Americans in Baltimore confronted in the years of his youth.

"You were taught where you belonged and the places you couldn't go," he said. "There were lines drawn, and you didn't cross the line. You stayed in your own territory. You knew."

In 1948, Dr. Wright joined the Boy Scouts, which in those years was also segregated, but praised the group for giving him structure and a sense of pride.

After graduating from Carver Vocational-Technical High School in 1956, he served in the Army in Italy for nearly two years before returning to Baltimore.

He worked for a home improvement contractor for several years until 1966, when he took a job as a building operations mechanic at City Hall. In 1968, he began a 13-year stint as a building maintenance supervisor for the Western District police station.

A lifelong Baptist, Dr. Wright was a Bible studies teacher and volunteer director of finance at New Union Baptist Church, where he met and married the former Ida Mitchell in 1966.

His civil rights activism in Baltimore began in the 1960s, and he joined the NAACP in 1972. He later served as president of the Howard County branch of the NAACP, which since 1983 has had its headquarters at his church.

From 1969 to 1972, Dr. Wright studied theology at the Maryland Baptist School and received his doctorate in divinity in 1982 from Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg, Va.

In 1983, Dr. Wright earned a bachelor's degree and was awarded an honorary doctorate in divinity studies from the National Theological Seminary and College in Atlanta.

Ordained in 1972, he served for nine years as part-time pastor at the First Baptist Church of Guilford, which at that time had 120 members.

Dr. Wright became its permanent pastor in 1981, and through the decades, he infused his congregation, which now has more than 3,000 members, with social and political activism.

"Dr. Wright had a phenomenal commitment to human rights, equality and justice, not just in Howard County but the nation," said C. Vernon Gray, a former Howard County councilman and current administrator of the Howard County Office of Human Rights.

"He brought changes in education and in the Police Department in Howard County. He was a monumental figure who tried to right the wrongs he saw in the county and elsewhere," Mr. Gray said. "It was the sheer force of his personality that brought change to this county."

State Sen. James N. Robey, former Howard County executive who earlier was county police chief, was a longtime friend and admirer.

"It's traditional for people to say that when someone died that they'll be missed, but in this case it's true. Dr. Wright was an institution in Howard County," Senator Robey said yesterday.

"We had a great working relationship, and I think we both learned a lot from one another," he said.

Dr. Wright pushed the Police Department on the issue of minority hiring and promotion as well as doing away with racial profiling.

"When I was deputy chief and was running for chief, he came in to see me. I told him I'd make minority hiring and promotion of all qualified candidates, both men and women, a priority, and he said, 'I like what you said, and I will support you for chief,' " Senator Robey recalled.

Dr. Wright had served as president of the Baptist Ministers' Conference of Baltimore and Vicinity, and had been president of the United Baptist Missionary Convention and Auxiliaries of Maryland and director of the Baptist Aged Home.

He was currently chairman of the board of regents of the United Baptist Missionary College and Seminary.

Dr. Wright was an avid reader of history and religion and of the civil rights struggle. He also enjoyed traveling and fishing.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at St. John the Baptist Church, Tamar Drive and Patuxent River Parkway in Columbia.

In addition to his wife of 44 years, Dr. Wright is survived by a daughter, Dr. Sheila Wright of Severn; three brothers, Jerome Wright of Columbia and George Wright and William Wright, both of Baltimore; and four sisters, Marguerite Floyd, Mary Carter and Imogene Floyd, all of Baltimore, and Brenda Wright-Harris of Randallstown.

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